“Everybody” is going mobile. It’s not just airports where you see people stabbing, pointing or waving around (or even listening to) their smartphones these days, but everywhere. A lot of that is to do with text messaging, apps, games and so on, but a lot of it is web use too. Google Analytics and Web-Stat provide me with a record of what is happening on my sites, and what is happening today is very different from one year ago. Numbers are up and that’s always welcome. But whereas one year ago the proportion of visitors using a mobile device for site access was about 1 in 70, today it is 1 in 12. And I expect that to be history by Christmas. This is a phenomenon.
As a web publisher I have to decide what to do about this, and I don’t think there are necessarily simple answers. Technology moves so fast that I am quite likely to be embarrassed in a few months’ time by what I am writing today. But right now here is how I see things.
1) A mobile user is probably less leisured than a user sitting at a PC. He or she will probably have less time for reading, research and analysis and little use for purely aesthetic embellishment. I conclude that functionality should be simple and straightforward and yield fast results.
2) However adept a mobile user is at sending text messages, and generally using a virtual keyboard, he or she is never going to be able to write as freely, fluently and fully as with a conventional keyboard. I for one would not consider writing this article on a phone. At the same time we should expect keying to become easier, faster and more predictive even on the smallest keyboards, and – where it is an option - voice activation to become more banal.
3) Mobile means quite a range of things. An iPad is a mobile device but accessing websites on an iPad is a very different sport from using a phone, especially a smaller one. And iPads (and other tablets to varying degrees) cope well with most unmodified websites. I conclude that “mobile” users should not be forced down a mobile alley if they choose to stay on the conventional main road.
4) And screen technology has moved forward dramatically in the past two years or so, so that even small phones can blow up parts of any “page” with very little effort on the part of the user. And given that, it seems highly likely that it will move forward again from here with ever higher resolution, easier pinch and zoom etc. This makes it difficult to make decisions today which we can confidently expect to look good a year or two down the line.
Doing nothing is not an option for most however. Many sites don’t “work” well on mobile devices because the page is too busy, full of text and/or large images, and designed for use on a big screen with a wide-ranging, fast-moving rodent. You can create a version of your website for mobile devices and send visitors there automatically, or you can show that the alternate version is available and offer an optional link. A good example of the former is the site of Lake School of English where mobile users are sent automatically to a natty mobile version of the site, which also offers a route back to the main site. On English in Britain, and Colleges in Britain, we offer links from the main site to optional cut-down and much simpler .mobi versions (and routes back to the main site for any refugees). Although the links to these alternate sites are fairly discreet, the take-up has been instant and striking.
Those are perhaps satisfactory if unspectacular provisional answers to the question of how to respond today. Things are moving very fast, however, and we may anticipate an overhaul of website design generally in the coming months in order to provide for the multiplicity of platforms that are and will be used to access sites and apps and TV and games, and provide mobile (or fixed) communications in the near future. Comments welcome.