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Paul Boag Posted by: Paul Boag On Tuesday, 15th March, 2011

Making mobile mistakes

I started in the web back in 1994. We made a lot of mistakes. Unfortunately I am beginning to see those mistakes repeated in 2011… in mobile development.

Development Mobile:
The estimated time to read this article is 7 minutes

I am not sure I like the way some are talking about the mobile web. Its passing through the same awkward adolescence that the web went through.

Like the web itself a few years back, organisations are beginning to pay attention as they see users slowly adopt mobile. They know it will be important but it doesn’t have the levels of usage to justify heavy investment.

At the same time we are seeing web designers jumping on the mobile bandwagon in much the same way print designers did with the web.

This fatal combination is leading to bad advice and half assed solutions.

I see similarities between the emergence of mobile and the emergence of the web itself. These similarities exist in three areas:

1. We can do the web too

I remember how annoying it used to be in the late nineties and early naughties when print designers started offering web design. From their perspective the web was similar to print.

In fact many of their skills were transferable. However, there was also a lot of differences too. The web and print simply were not that much alike.

A print design website that offers web design too

I see the same thing happening with mobile. Many web designers are claiming they can do web too. They try to transfer their skills in web design and applying them to mobile. However this isn’t always the right approach.

I am not saying that web designers should not offer mobile (after all we do at Headscape). We just need to be careful we understand the mobile web before we start offering solutions that might ‘do the job’ now, but be wholly inadequate as we learn more about the medium.

I would argue it is not adequate to simply load a mobile stylesheet or have a responsive design. That brings me to the next similarity I see with days gone by.

2. We can just reuse…

Back in the early days of the web clients would talk about ‘putting their brochure online’. They wanted to replicate the print work they already had. They wanted the same words, same design, same everything.

What worries me is that I see clients and web designers having the same conversation today. The ‘one web’ brigade talk about delivering the same content to a mobile device and a desktop computer. Clients are asking for their ‘existing site‘ to work on mobile devices. Neither group seems to be considering whether users need the same content on both the web and mobile.

When it comes to the mobile web, context is king. What content we should be delivering is entirely reliant on the context the user is in. Take for example the Headscape website. Users are unlikely to want to view our portfolio on the small screen of a smartphone. However, they might want to get directions to our office or our phone number if they get lost.

Person accessing the web on a train using an iphone

A mobile device plays a different role to a desktop computer. We cannot simply ‘skin’ our existing website and expect that to be sufficient.

The last similarity I see between the emergence of the web and the emergence of mobile is ‘device specific development’.

3. This site/app only works in…

Those of us who have been working on the web for sometime joke about ‘the browser wars‘. This was a period of time when browser manufacturers would compete for market share by releasing their own proprietary tags that could be used by web designers. The casualties of this war were users who would often arrive at a website to be greeted by a message telling them that the site would only work in a particular browser (normally Internet Explorer).

Web designers were also a casualty of this war. They were sometimes expected to design their client’s website multiple times for different browsers. Finally the client suffered because they had to finance this reworking for different browsers.

I look at the mobile space at the moment and see much the same thing happening. Organisations are releasing iPhone and iPad apps, Android apps, and even Windows Mobile apps. Each device has its own unique functionality that the developer can call upon and so each provides a different experience.

Image of different mobile platforms

Once again everybody suffers. Users suffer when their particular platform does not have the cool apps found on another platform. Developers suffer because they have to recode for each platform and clients are left footing the bill.

One answer to this problem would be to build web based apps rather than native apps. In fact Bruce Lawson gave a great talk at SXSW explaining just how much is possible without the need for running a local app. This would open up the possibilities of building once for all mobile platforms and use progressive enhancement to provide the best experience possible to each device.

From the cloud to the device and back again

At the moment the big drawback of web based mobile apps is speed and connectivity. Web based mobile apps are slow compared to their native cousins. What is more in many situations there can be no connectivity at all. At the moment at least, native apps look like the better option and we will all have to deal with the potential downsides.

That said, I think mobile will reflect the evolution of the web. For a long time software ran on our local machines. However, more recently we have seen a move to the web. This has happened because of broadband. That ‘always on’ high speed connection has allowed an explosion of cloud based apps. While the mobile web moves native the desktop app is moving to the cloud. I suspect therefore that when mobile devices also offer ‘always on’ high speed connections we will see a move back to cloud based apps. They will be cheaper to develop and run across more devices without the need to recode.

hootsuite

Of course these are all guesses. However, as I look at the development of the mobile space I am quietly confident that the future is rosy. I think we will learn from the mistakes made on the web itself and come out of the other end able to produce cheap, effective and usable mobile sites that are a lot more than a reformatted version of the website.

Conclusion

Those that argue mobile is an extension of traditional websites are in my opinion wrong. However, I equally believe that those who say the future is ultimately native are also wrong. I believe that the future lies with custom designed mobile websites that are cloud based. However, I think we will need to pass through the native app stage until the mobile networks can provide better quality universal connectivity.

But hey what do I know. That is just my opinion. Let me know what you think in the comments.

Update

I have had some great feedback from some very smart people (see the comments below) and that has helped me clarify my thinking. I posted a short audio post where I explain that I believe wholeheartedly in the idea of providing all users with the same content but that I think the emphasis of that context needs to change based on the possible context the user is in. Admittedly we cannot know for definite what the context is based on the device but we can take an educated guess and provide those users with an optimised solution while not removing content from others that don’t meet with that assumption.

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