Mobile Design Demystified

Aaron Branson
October 28, 2011
User Experience Design

Based on a few client conversations that seemed to have a consistent theme, I thought I’d take a few minutes to talk about mobile design… the various ways to achieve it and which way is best for your organization.

Why Do We Care?

So, why do we care about mobile design anyway? Well, if you’re not reading this on a mobile device or tablet yourself, somebody else is. To be precise, approximately 6% of web traffic is mobile/tablet devices. 6 percent?! Big deal, right? With all the hype around mobile, you’d expect something higher. But, here’s the thing. That’s September’s data and in June it was 5% and March 4% and approximately 1 year ago today… just 3%. Look at the trend and the velocity of the increase.

mobile device web traffic

• December 2010 – March 2011 (+.48% in 3 months) • March 2011 – June 2011 (+1.1% in 3 months) • June 2011 – September 2011 (+.96% in 3 months)

So, not only is the market share increasing, but the rate of its increase is picking up (though the most recent month was a decline from the previous). I think it’s safe to say this time next year, that share is going to be over 10%. And that is a group to take seriously… and it takes time to implement web design and technology to meet those needs. And that is why mobile design is important NOW. But these are general statistics… what’s even more important is YOUR statistics. Check your analytics and find out the trends of mobile usage on YOUR website… maybe it’s even higher.

* Data from

What is it Exactly?

When an organization decides that they need a mobile design of their website, the next question is what do they mean by mobile design? There are several “levels” of mobile design and the right one depends on your audience and understanding their behavior, needs and goals of visiting the site via a mobile device.

Level 1: Mobile “Friendly” Design

For starters, one simple strategy is to make sure your current website is mobile-friendly… meaning a mobile visitor will see the exact same website and the layout stays intact. It also means, if possible, avoiding Flash technology if you can get the same results via JQuery. This does not require much additional effort and should really be considered during any redesign project. Consider this your minimum requirement for addressing the mobile audience.

mobile web design

Level 2: Mobile View

The next step up in sophistication and effort is to create a separate “presentation layer” of your website. Basically, you are detecting the user’s device and showing the exact same web pages and content but using a different HTML/CSS layer. This can be well within reach depending on the platform your current website is running on. Check if your CMS has the capability to separate content from presentation and thus allow you to develop multiple presentation layers for unique devices such as mobile, tablets and printers.

mobile web design

Level 3: Mobile Site

Now we’re getting serious. In this case, simply optimizing the look of the same website information/content is not enough. If your mobile web users are trying to complete “tasks” rather than simply read content, a separate mobile site may be the best approach. Typically, this requires really focusing your objectives and thinking of simply 1, 2 or 3 super important tasks mobile users want to accomplish and delivering just those capabilities. Consider Dominos Pizza… if a user is visiting from a mobile device don’t make them weed through corporate fluff, careers info… let them get right down to business – ordering a pizza or finding a location.

mobile web design

Level 4: Mobile Apps

Ok… now you’ve reached Level 4. Being just mobile “friendly” is not going to cut it. Having a mobile “view” of the same website isn’t quite right. Having a dedicated mobile “site” is getting there… but perhaps your users’ really make use of their mobile devices to interact with your company. So perhaps mobile “apps” is the way to go really give the user the best possible user experience using menus and UI components native to their device – Android, iPhone, Blackberry and so on. This requires a significant effort in first determining which device(s) to support and then develop them individually and in some cases register with their respective marketplace. But the end-result is perhaps the most efficient and optimized user experience on each individual’s personal device.

mobile web design

So, where do we go from here? Get to know your audience and make sure you understand their objectives and tasks. Clearly articulate your organizations goals and how a mobile strategy will achieve them. Know your mobile usage statistics and projections. Then a measurable, achievable plan can be mapped out.

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