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Oh, and it has to work on mobile!

But… what does this actually mean?

Less colloquially perhaps, but you'd be surprised at how often I come across this little – and big – condition, buried at the end of a Statement of Work or draft requirements document. It's not surprising that it's mentioned, of course, just that it's not often mentioned as an up-front requirement, or not given the weight it deserves.

Oh, and it has to work on mobile!

Of course it has to work on mobile! Why wouldn't you want it to? Sure – when the mobile web first took off, we assumed it was being used by people who were, well, mobile. But now we're not only using the mobile web at the park or on the bus, but also on the couch, in bed, and even when we're sitting in front of a PC. Mobility now should be treated as a standard feature - in some ways it's the new equivalent of cross-browser compatibility; and as such ensuring some form of mobile compatibility (and there are many forms of this) is something I address at the beginning of every new project.

The phrase brings to my mind a couple of questions though:

  • What do you mean by 'work'?
  • What do you mean by 'mobile'?


What do you mean by 'work'?

When we talk about 'working' on mobile, there are many approaches we can take. You've probably come across the terms 'responsive' and 'adaptive' design, for websites, and these both have their strengths. Native applications can also be developed – at which point the question of which mobile operating systems you will cater for inevitably comes up. There's also the question of what kind – or what proportion – of the experience are you going to deliver to mobile users? Just the newest or the most important, or perhaps the most popular? Will we hide images for users on slow connections with small screens?

There's no single correct answer to any of these questions, other than 'It depends...' Budget and time always come into it, but the nature of your content/application/project goals/business processes, and of course the underlying technology, always have impacts that affect the decision-making. But I guess you could say that if time and money were no obstacle, then you'd want pretty-much-everything-to-work-pretty-much-everywhere (although remember, all generalisations are dangerous!) This, however, brings me to question two:


What do you mean by 'mobile'?

Prior to April 3, 2010, the devices on which people accessed the web usually fell into one of two categories: desktop, which included laptops; and mobile, which included smart phones, a still reasonably new technology.

However on that fateful day in 2010, a new product hit the stands: the iPad. This was the first commercially successful tablet computer to change the way we began to consider the word 'mobile'. One of the very first conversations I always seem to end up having with clients is deciding whether tablets are in or out of scope when it comes to 'mobile'. Often they're left out, simply because of the high screen resolutions that mean desktop experiences generally translate acceptably. But if you consider the context of use – in cafes, parks, and on public transport – then they are very much 'mobile' devices, and are certainly still prone to some of the same constraints as smart phones, such as connectivity speeds and costs.

Another new product, Google Glass, is looking to change the landscape once again. While Glass has met mixed reviews at this point, you can't deny that the technology is awesome, cool, and interesting, and that it's likely to lead to some new and different use cases and contexts. Is Google Glass mobile? Definitely. But do you touch, pan, swipe, pinch and zoom with your fingers? No. It's going to introduce a whole new design paradigm and further complicate the requirement of 'it has to work on mobile'.

We should be considering other emerging technologies too - smart TVs, smart watches, smart fridges, even the entertainment systems in new cars – they're all being connected, breathing life into the concept of ubiquitous computing. I think before long, it's going to be 'ubiquity' that is required of our software, rather than simply 'mobility'.

So what do we do about this? How do we ensure that our content, information, and experiences can be ported from device to device, in contextually appropriate ways? Well, there are a few things we can do.


1) Plan for a whole ecosystem

Think about how your customers will use different devices to interact with you at different points during their purchasing journeys. These devices represent a whole new landscape of touch points, in addition to the real-world ones, and each has its own nuances.


2) Be reasonably device/platform agnostic

Are your users on iOS or Android? Or Windows 8? Or Blackberry? Does it matter? From an initial investment, first-out-of-the-gate perspective, yes it can. From a long-term perspective, I would argue it doesn't (especially if you're not talking about native apps – web browsers are everywhere). You don't want to lessen your market share just because you've picked a side in another industry's battle, do you?


3) Use structured content, and embrace standards and semantics

The writers reading this are going to hate me for saying this, but if I had my way, content writers would be using Excel rather than Word to draft their content (or probably something even better suited again). You can no longer afford to have large blobs of unwieldy, unorganised, rambling content on the web (although again, all generalisations are dangerous, says the blogger!). Structuring your content using semantic fields and databases is what allows us to do very clever things such as pull out specific, highly relevant snippets of information at contextually appropriate times. It allows content and data to be ported across several devices easily, and can even allow it to be mashed up with other data and content by third parties. Writing content in a highly structured way may feel restrictive to writers who are more used to freeform writing, especially at first. However, in terms of technology and future uses, it offers so much more flexibility over presentation and layout, and is key to offering appropriate delivery and presentation of content.

What does all this mean? Put simply, we need to think broadly about where and how our content will be consumed, and decide exactly what we mean when we ask for mobility. Do you want a responsive site, a native app, or an ecosystem of tailored experiences operating as several discrete but integrated touch-points as part of a greater customer journey?


Posted by: Brad Gallen, Digital Strategist, Web and Digital Strategy Team. | 15 July 2013

Tags: Google, Mobile

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