The mobile web is big and it’s getting bigger. Mobile browsing is expected to overtake desktop browsing in two to four years (see here and here, as quoted by Ethan Marcote on A List Apart, in his article on Responsive Web Design). The number of mobile devices is growing ever more rapidly, with this slideshow by Bryan Rieger from Yiibu quoting figures of 3.4 billion having mobile devices – roughly 1/2 the people on the planet – compared with the 1.8 billion estimated internet connections (26% of World population at beginning of 2010).
So what does all that mean? Mobile web is not an option any longer, that’s a given. But it’s more complicated than that. Traditionally, the solution has been to perhaps build a mobile version of your website for mobile visitors. Or to build an iPhone app. Or an iPad app. Or all three.
But where does that leave us? Less than 4% of the global market share of mobile devices falls to the iPhone. Less than 4%. Again, to quote Bryan Rieger, the most popular devices (think BMW) don’t necessarily translate into the most used devices (think Ford). Do you cut off a huge chunk of your users, simply because they haven’t got an iPhone?
And consider too – the smartphone of today will be thoroughly out of date in three years time. There will be a whole raft of new devices out there, as well as the old ones hanging on too. So do you create a new version of your website for each new device that’s brought out?
There has to be a better answer than that. And there is… but the answer is still evolving. Responsive Web Design – a term first coined by Ethan Marcote in the article by the same name – is part of the answer. Responsive Web Design is both an approach and a combination of technologies, pulled together with the aim of building a single website that will look good across a wide variety of platforms – from supersize monitors to tiny mobile screens. It uses fluid grids and media queries to ensure that a design ‘flows’ to suit the device being used.
But things are never that simple. Many mobiles don’t support media queries. That’s sort of where the ‘Mobile First‘ approach came in. Think of it as starting off with the most basic version of the website. And then progressively enhancing for those devices (be they mobile or traditional desktop-based browsers) which are capable of more.
There are more than just technical considerations too. There is the idea of context – where the user is, what they’re doing, what they’re trying to achieve. This is a double edged sword. Many people argue that mobile users need a different set of content to desktop browsers – they will be looking for contact details, directions, quick bits of information that will help then achieve the task in hand. This is probably a pretty good assumption in many cases. But assumptions are dangerous. People don’t just use their mobile on the train, while in town, etc etc… they also use it sitting at home on the sofa – when they can’t be bothered to get the laptop out. And I’ve heard of users getting frustrated when they’re looking for something on a mobile website, but can’t find it…. although they’ve seen it before on the desktop version.
Again, there’s no easy answer – but think of it as an opportunity as well as a problem. It helps to focus the thoughts on what is really needed on a website – be it mobile or desktop. This is the way web design always should have been done.
There’s a lot more to the story, but that’s as far as I’m going today – work beckons! I for one see this as a huge challenge, but also as a huge opportunity for learning and design in general. Business-wise, it would be nice to have something to package up as a separate ‘product’ to sell to clients… perhaps unfortunately, I think the answer is rather an extension of the existing product. Not necessarily an easy sell, but for me, it’s the right answer.