Show 96: Moll on Mobile

On this week’s show: Paul suggests some ways a client can pick which agencies to ask to tender. Marcus asks when is speculative design okay and Cameron Moll explaining how to get started on the mobile web.

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News and events | When is speculative design okay? | Who to ask to tender? | Cameron Moll on the mobile web

News and events

Social Participation as a business tool

Back in 2006 I spoke at refresh06. One of the presentations I gave there has since proved a popular subject and I have been asked to speak on it again a number of times in various forms. It is on the subject of social participation and how to use it as a marketing and business tool. Social networks and communities are often seen as the domain of the teenage crowd with sites like YouTube and MySpace dominated by this demographic. However, community based applications are applicable to all audiences and can be a powerful tool for businesses.

After preparing the latest incarnation for a presentation I am giving at IBM, I thought I would do a run through (as I have only limited time). Discovering the new record feature in keynote I decided to record the whole thing and upload it for all to see. Hope it is useful.

Test your website for mobile compatibility

So this week we have Cameron Moll on the show talking about some of things covered in his new book “Mobile Web Design”. In his book he mentions an interesting site that I would like to pass on to you. It is a web application that allows you to test how well your website would appear on a mobile device. You simply enter your website address, wait while it calculates your results (it even gives a random mobile web development tip while you wait) and then view a complete breakdown of any issues with your site.

The report is distilled down into a single score but you can also see performance in each of the individual areas including:

  • Speed
  • Cost in terms of data access
  • Quality of code

and a whole host of miscellaneous tests. However, best of all is the fact that it also provides an emulation of what your site would look like on a whole host of mobile devices.

Laying out inline images

My next story tackles one of the mixed blessing of content management systems. Although it is great that content management systems allow clients to add content themselves they almost always fine a way of screw up the look of a site in the process. One way that they manage this is adding inline images. They are often required to add specific classes to images for them to be displayed correctly. Unsurprisingly the client sometimes fails to do this and the design becomes broken.

This week the List Apart website proposes one way to slightly reduce this risk. They use javascript to detect content images on a page and then apply different classes based on the width of the image in relation to its containing tag. In other words the Javascript detects whether the image is a full column, half column, or quarter column image and lays it out appropriately.

Its not the perfect solution and there are still ample other ways clients can screw up a design but it is a nice use of javascript that enhances a design without being mission critical. I think seeing this kind of use of Javascript and we should all be looking to use it for this type of thing.

10 Usability nightmares you should be aware of

My last story this week is another top ten list from the guys at smashing magazine (they do like their lists!). This one is a list of the top 10 usability mistakes and I have to say it is an entertaining list focusing on some big name sites. The list includes:

  • Hidden log-in links
  • Pop-ups for content presentation
  • Dragging instead of vertical navigation
  • Invisible links
  • Visual noise
  • Dead end
  • Content blocks layering upon each other
  • Dynamic navigation
  • Drop-Down Menus
  • Blinking images

Each mistake is explained in detail including some offending screenshots. A worthwhile read for us all.

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Marcus’ bit: When is speculative design okay?

I have decided to talk about speculative design work this week because we have recently produced a couple of designs and, although we recommend that it should be avoided, sometimes you simply can’t.

Unpaid prospective work is the bane of all of graphic based agencies and freelancers. It’s also something we have looked at before, but it’s such a significant subject I think it’s a good idea to look at it again.

The worst case

Some ‘clients’, and I use the word loosely, are simply looking for free work. It seems that they think ‘art’ or ‘drawing’ is not real work and is something that only fools pay for. They usually ask for a number of different page designs and concepts and will often ask for revisions on delivered designs.

The project often ends up being dropped by ‘the board’ and then mysteriously, a few months later, something very similar to your design appears for all to see.
These people are effectively stealing from you. Don’t do it.

When is it ok?

If you take the line that we should never do unpaid work then the answer is ‘never’.

However, life simply isn’t like that so you need to make some choices. You could argue that as long as the client is genuine i.e. it’s a real project that someone will win and subsequently get paid for, then it’s ok. It’s a fair fight and the best design will win.

But, this isn’t just about getting paid.

Educate (how many times do I use that as a heading!)

Speculative design is a beauty contest. The whole point of the exercise is to impress the client. This can possibly be seen as taking a somewhat derogatory view of a client’s ability to make the distinction between a design for them versus a design for their users. But even for those that understand the distinction, I don’t think it is possible to separate ‘what I like’ from ‘what is right for our users’. If there is a choice, then people can’t help picking the one they like best.

Added to this, there’s the big issue of designing in the dark. Even if a client has supplied a detailed brief and they’re happy to chat on the phone, the guy pitching still doesn’t really know what the requirements are. The early part of any design project involves detailed discussions about an organisations USPs, target audience, brand values, site statistics, site goals, etc etc.
User interface design is a collaborative process between the agency and the client that goes through an iterative cycle based on user feedback. This simply doesn’t happen with speculative design work.
So, in summary, always have this conversation with prospective clients. I know for a fact that on one job, we won the work by doing so. The client saw it as the most professional and well thought through approach taken by the agencies pitching for the job.

However, sometimes you have to do it or you will jeopardise your chance of winning the work – but still have the conversation and ask whether or not producing an initial concept will adversely affect your bid.

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Paul’s corner: Who to ask to tender?

With literally millions of web design companies worldwide where do you begin when trying to draw up a list of potential agencies? Who do you invite to tender?

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Ask the expert: Cameron Moll on the mobile web

Paul: Okay so joining me today is Cameron Moll. Good to have you on the show Cameron.

Cameron Moll: Hey, thanks Paul.

Paul: I think this is your first time on Boagworld, is it not?

Cameron Moll: Yeah it is.

Paul: Ah that’s good stuff we alway like to get new people on instead of having the same old boring people on every time. Nice to get someone from the States as well. Which is good.

Cameron Moll: Yeah absolutely and I’m kinda bummed you didn’t pick me for your hundredth episode.

Paul: Well if your in London you can come to our hundredth episode and join in the show. Do you happen to be over then by any chance?

Cameron Moll: Uh, when’s that gonna be.

Paul: Uh, October 20.

Cameron Moll: Um, unfortunately not.

Paul: Argg.Shame, what a shame. Yeah, so we’re looking forward to our hundredth that should be fun. So I mean the reason we’ve got you on the show today is because you’ve just produced a book called Mobile Web Design. This you already know I’m sure. So we thought it would be good to get you on the show just to talk about some of the things that you kind of cover in the book, and give a bit of an introduction, um, to the world of developing mobile websites. And um the question I wanted to kick off with is in your book you dicsuss kind of four different responses to kind of mobile web. In other words four different approaches people could take when they start thinking about the subject of mobile web design. And I just wondered whether you could talk us through those four different approaches that people could use.

Cameron Moll: Yeah that’s probably a good place to start. Um, most of these are straight forward right. It’s I think a pretty simple thinking to understand how one would approach the mobile web. And uh, you know I produced these about two years ago as I was trying to understand how someone like myself, you, how we would make that leap over to mobile. The more I was researching it the more it became apparent that you know there is really these four methods, and what they boil down to is, uh, is this. So one, you essentially do nothing. Two, you reduce the number of images and styling therby reducing the file size, uh, the page weight and so on. Three, handheld style sheets and then four, mobile optimized or what some refer to as content adaptation. And uh, the breakdown is essentially this, if you’re going with that first approach your saying “You know what, I’m going to do nothing.” I’m either lazy. I assume that my users have devices that can support the content I already developed and uh, you know when you think about the mobile web obviously the question that comes to mind is what technology am I going to use? How am I developing content for mobile devices? And fourthly, most devices out on the market today will support well structured mark up out of the box. And so most of the devices being sold, most of the devices that people have in hand today are going to support your html markup. So a lot of user will take that approach, I guess developers that is, take the approach to say you know what, what I have developed it good enough. I’m going to push it out there. And with things like the iPhone and some of the higher end Nokia devices that are out on the market, most of those devices can support a full desktop experience. Right, so it’s this idea that I refered to as content zooming. And so with the iPhone I can see the full website. I can pinch or zoom in. With some of the Nokia devices and Oprea mini 4, I can have that same experience. And so the thinking with that first approach is, lets just leave the content as is and allow those higher end devices to access them.

Paul: Sure (thoughtfully like he is paying attention)

Cameron Moll: Uh, the second approach. This essentially takes the existing markup and content and says lets pull out the images. Lets pull out the styling and allow users to access that raw content. And the thinking there is we’ll reduce the file size. We’ll take out all those big images, that unnecessary styling. Most of the devices out on the market today, well I shouldn’t say most, but alot of them don’t support the styling that you and I are used to using on the desktop. So, the thinking here is just to pull all that out and allow the device to see the raw content. And after all people are after the content not necessarly the background images and colours and things like that. Now the third approach is perhaps right now the most controversial, and that being handheld style sheets. I mean these have been promoted as kind of this poster child of all things web. So any device whethe it be a mobile device, a car a watch or what have you should potentiall be able to take the same markup and with a style sheet specific for that device, again it might be a printer it might be a mobile device. Being able to attach specific style sheets that render the presentation differently for that given device. So the idea being, you know if I just attach a handheld style sheet to my markup. I don’t touch the markup. I don’t touch anything else. I just add that handheld style sheet then great it’s going to display it differently and so on. Of course there are drawbacks to this approach and I guess what I’m skipping here is there is drawbacks that I cover in detail in the book to.

Paul: Yeah (thoughtfully like he is paying attention)

Cameron Moll: To each of these approaches. They all have pros and cons. The biggest one here with handheld style sheets, cutting to the chase, is the fact that not all devices support it. I would guesstimate, I don’t have any exact figures, I don’t know that they exist. But is guesstimate only about half the devices out on the market will support handheld style sheets. And even of those that do the support is somewhat shotty. In that some of those devices will correctly obey a property such as “display none” but they’ll still in the background download the associated content with that. So if you’ve got a large image for example, and you attach to that “display none” it won’t show it but it’s still gonna download in the background that image or that content. So right now, at least, using handheld style sheets is a bit of a pipe dream. It’s just we’d love to be able to have the power to access those, that capability. But right now it’s just not all that feasible.

Paul: Hmm. (thoughtfully like he is paying attention)

Cameron Moll: Finally, on the fourth point, mobile optimized content. This is where you say “You know what. I understand that the environment of being mobile, this idea of context is different that it is when I am sitting at my desktop.” It’s different because I might be using one hand for data entry. I’ve got a much smaller screen and naturally I’m out on the street. I’m out driving or something along those lines. So we say what’s different about that experience, then sitting at one’s desktop. Proponents of this fourth approach essentially say, “You know what the other approaches, especially the do nothing approach completely ignore context.” And that is what is the user doing when they’re out walking. When they’re on the tube or the subway and so on. So this last approach says, okay the context of being mobile is different than anything else. People want to do things differently when they’re out and about. So we’re gonna reformat our content to cater to that experience. We’re gonna present and entirely different experience, and altered experience perhaps to that of the desktop that addresses the specific needs of being mobile. The arguement I make in the book, I guess coming full circle with these approaches is, I often get asked the question “Well what’s the best approach then Camerson?” I don’t know. And you ask 20 different people in this industry and you’ll get 20 different answers. Right now I think the most feasible approaches moving forward are the first approach, do nothing, and the last approach, to create mobile optimized content. The arguement being is one, you need to understand first of all the context of mobile users and therefore adapt that experience to that context. But at the same time you have alot of capable devices out on the market that may be able to render a full experience that users are used to elsewhere.

Paul: I mean you talked there about context and in particular the fact that peole might be using it one handed or whatever else. What are kind of the major differences that you are seeing between kind of a user experience designed for the desktop compared to user experience designed for the mobile device? How do they alter? What should we be doing differently?

Cameron Moll: Well I think that the key phrase here is mobile right. So Barbra Ballard, I quote her in the book, I love her quote that essentially says that when we’re talking about mobile it’s referencing the user not the device. And I think if we start there saying okay mobile is about the user not necessarily the device that they are using but the user. We then start to understand. Okay what is this user trying to do? Where are they? What are the limitations that they confront? And what are the oportunities that are provided through mobile that might not be provided elsewhere? So, it’s not about how do we make this experience similar to the desktop, but how is it different? How do we make it different and how do we welcome that different experience? So this idea of context, it’s this idea, you know, you have this great content, and we hear this phrase “content is king.” Well I argue that context is king. Cause when a user is mobile that content is of little value if you ignore the context in which it is being used. That inevitably leads to the question. What are the needs? What are the problems? What are the tasks that users may encounter in an environment of mobility. Then that leads to what are the opportunities that mobile provides for that given context. For our content, for our company that the PC doesn’t.

Paul: Yeah. I mean it’s a very interesting area because it’s almost somethign you need to address on almost an individual project basis. Looking at what content you’re working with, and working out what of that content is actually relvant to a mobile device and which isn’t. I mean you use an example about that somebody’s probably not going to want to look at your portfolio page on your personal website on a mobile device. It’s just not the right context. I guess that’s what your getting at there.

Cameron Moll: Right. You bring out a very interesting point and that is, let’s say a given company. Let’s say you and I as developers are working within an organization right. And we’ve got 20 projects that we manage. Something you said earlier keys to the point of looking at those 20 applications or websites and saying okay first of all which of these 20 apps might be relevant to someone being mobile. We cut that down to say 5 or 6 or whatever the number becomes. Within those applications or sites if we’re talking about existing content here within those applications or websites it’s those 5 or 6 as being perhaps suitable to mobility. We then look within those entire applications, so within a given application for example that might have 20 different tasks that a user does with that application. We then say okay which of those tasks are relevant to someone being mobile. So it’s this process, at least with existing content, looking at what are the applications we provide and within those applications what are the features that are going to be relevant. Now what that also ignores though is the fact that we’re not saying what are new opportunities? What applications have we not developed that might cater to mobile? Or within an application that we have developed, what opportunities such as location awareness might be provided to a user that we just haven’t even thought about it.

Paul: Yeah. I mean that whole about the fact that you get into this mentality that a mobile device is a cut down version of what you provide on the desktop. Actually, there are opportunities to do stuff on a mobile device that isn’t actually possible on a desktop and the location aware stuff is a good example of that I guess.

Cameron Moll: Right exactly.

Paul: Okay. So lets say as a web designer I’m beginning to get a bit excited about the mobile web. It’s obviously the way that things are going. You provide some excellent statistics in your book about take up levels of mobile devices and I’ve cribbed those and used them on the show before. So I think that there is a lot of people that are listenin to the show and going yeah this is something that I am really quite excited about. But where do I start? What kind of technical skills to I need to develop mobile websites? Is it enough to just know standards based design? Or is there other thins I need to know as well?

Cameron Moll: You know that’s a perfect question. If you look at where we are at now today it’s totally different then say 4 or 5 ago. I remember the same hype 4 or 5 years ago where people were saying mobiles coming. Developing websites for mobile devices is the next big thing. It just kind of died out. I think largely it was due to the fact that back then you still had to develop in WML, which is not a cryptic language. It actually provided a lot of clarity and unity to the mobile web environment 4 or 5 years ago. But at the same time it required that a lot of us had to learn a new language in addition to HTML or CSS. That’s no longer the case. So this second time around when we hear this hype about the mobile web, to me at least it feels much more real. Because now we have again, as I mentioned earlier, most devices out on the market, in fact nearly all of them support HTML, XHTML, and some level of CSS. So that means that you and I, we already know HTML. We already know CSS. We can take that knowledge and start developing content for mobile devices. Whereas 4 or 5 years ago we had to learn a new language just to get over that barrier of providing content. So the good news is, for the most part, really if you know standards based design and development techniques, you are 90% there. I think the other 10% is left to understanding context. So trying to understand what those limitations are with mobile devices and mobile users. And also looking at the opportunities. so again we’re talking about smaller screens, data entry. Those being limitations but at the same time location awarenes. Users just want to do things different. They’re out on the go, which can be a great advantage depending on what kind of content you’re providing. So I think the good news here, long story short, yes. You and I can just build on the knowledge we already have if we just start to understand just a little bit about what the users are doing.

Paul: I mean you say. It’s interesting some of the words you use. You say ‘for the most part.’ Or ‘some browers understand CSS.” And I think that’s the other big fear that people have when they start investigating the mobile web, is the huge plethora of different browsers and devices and all of this kind of stuff. And it seems like how the hell am I supposed to test on that. It’s impossible to test on every conceiveable device and every conceiveable browser. Where do you start? Where do you put your initial efforts?

Cameron Moll: You know when I first started talking about mobile I think I was a bit to pessimistic in that I would stand up, say in a conference or in an article, and say okay if you’re going to test for mobile devices be prepared to test on dozens of browsers and if you think 4 or 5 desktop browsers. And getting consistency right for those is difficult. Wait till you see the mobile web. I’m a bit more optimistic now. I hope the book at least comes across that way and when I talk about it at conferences it comes across that way. And the reason being is this. There are some pretty easy ways to deal with that challenge of consistency. Of testing for mobile devices. Of just developing content period for mobile devices right. So you and I, you use probably the web developer extension for Firefox. We both probably at some point used Opera. Both of those browsers with those extensions and plugins can, at least at the very start, render and initial small screen preview. They both have options to be able to do that. So starting at the very least we can develop, again because we’re developing in XHTML rather than WML, we can within the browser at least do a very quick test to see roughly how it’s going to show up for the user. After that, once you’ve got at least the markup structurally sound you can then jump over to emulators. Now there are plenty of online emulators. .moby provides one. Opera mini provides another and there’s several others out there. But also there’s desktop software that you can download to be able to emulate mobile devices. So then taking 5 or 10 mobile devices I can now test how my content’s going to render, and it’s very close to how it will actually render on the device. But you can’t stop there. The last step has to be actual devices. And I think this was what was insurmountable for me starting out as a mobile developer. At least a beginner saying oh gosh do I have to go out an purchase 100 devices to be able to test my content. Well fortunately you can get away with 5 or 10 devices. If you can get 5 or 10 devices that vary widely. By that I mean one being a very basic phone, another one being a PDA,another one being a popular device such as the Razor. If you can get 5 devices that vary widely, 5 to 10, the chances are that that content is going to render well for most devices out there on the market. That will get you close enough. A lot of that is based not just on my personal preference but on the case study that I offer in the book. That is the Yahoo! website for the FIFA world cup last year. They took that approach. They said you know it would be difficult to test on 100 devices but we think if we can get 5 to 10 widely varying devices that chances are our content is going to display well for a global audience. Which indeed it was for that particular website. So that’s the arguement that I’ve made. I’ve hear others make that arguement as well. And it’s not difficult to get that number of devices right. So you can probably get 3 to 5 from yourself, from friends, collegues and so on, on loan for a couple hours. If you’ve got a blog you can ask for volunteers to do testing. I’ve done that before and it works pretty well. And then finally anyone can hop on eBay and do a search for unlocked mobile phones and purchase phones for an affordable price and get you know 5 to 10 devices. That’s how I did it. You know I hopped on eBay. I bought about 5 phones that were unlocked and then I just take my SIM card and swap that around the phones when I am doing testing. So it’s really not that difficult once you’re done developing your content to make sure that it renders well for mobile devices.

Paul: What do you think about the kind of growing thing that we’re seeing at the moment about designing mobile sites for specific devices? Like the iPhone. Do you think that is a bad route to go?

Cameron Moll: You know I’m not going to say it’s a bad route to go. But I do question it’s integrity. Three years ago or so, when I bought, well this was a little bit after I bought my Treo, for example which is a feature rich PDA. There were all kinds of Treo specific sites that had been developed. So you had something like, lets just say you had something like ESPN.com/mobile/pda/treo would be the web address for that content. And it was formatted just for that device. When you think about all the devices that are out on the market you then realize that that becomes a big chore to try to develope content for X number of devices. Now I think with the iPhone at least you have that same experience being repeated. For me it feels in part like you know years ago when we hit up a website and it said best viewd with Internet Explorer 4.0 or something like that. You know that is what we’re seeing now with the iPhone. Granted the iPhone provides a much different experience and a much richer experience, which is great, but at the same time I worry that we are spending a lot of effort on a device that 1. Is not a market majority and 2. The device itself, the iPhone itself might change at some point in the future. I might have a larger screen. It may render content differently. Which then will require that we go back and rewrite that content yet again. So the arguement I’ve made is if it makes business sense to develop and iPhone optimized site well more power to you. Go for it. But I advocate as a default creating content that can render on as many devices as possible. Not necessarily just one device.

Paul: Cool. Thank you so much Cameron. That is incredibly useful. Where can people find out more about your book then?

Cameron Moll: The web address is mobilewebbook.com or they can find a link from my website cameronmoll.com.

Paul: Excellent. It’s a .PDF book that you can download instantly. Now waiting around for delivery at $19. The best thing of all is it’s nice a short. Just over 100 pages. Isn’t that right? Something like that?

Cameron Moll: That’s correct. And I’ll give your listeners a heads up that we’ve got a print version coming out in October to be announced soon.

Paul: Oh that’s excellent. So you’ve got the choice either way. Alright thank you very much for coming on the show Cameron. We’ll get you on again in the future no doubt.

Cameron Moll: Hey thanks Paul.

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