Friday, February 15, 2013

The Mobile Solution...What's Right for Your Business?

Mobile is exploding in all directions--tablets, mini-tablets, smart phones, iPods, laptops, and more. Unlike a website built for large viewing on a desktop (a bigger canvas, so to speak), the mobile site is designed to appear on a much smaller handheld display, so it naturally requires a different solution than your desktop version. Some things to consider in mobile web development include the following:

  • Smaller canvas – Smaller screens mean the text needs to be larger and graphic elements need to be more limited. 
  • Window monogamy – On a mobile device only one window at a time can be viewed while on a desktop computer multi-open-windows allow for multi-tasking. 
  • Fat fingers – Because mobile devices are touch screens, navigation loses some flexibility by generally being limited to scrolling and swiping, instead of implementing the finesse of pointing and clicking with a mouse. 
  • Drive-thru pages only, no cafeterias – Mobile devices are much more limited in the type of online page options they can process. For instance, secured connections, Flash sites or other similar software, video sites, PDFs, etc. can't be accessed by many mobile devices. However, things are improving rapidly in this area. 
  • A snail's pace – On most mobile devices, the speed of service can be slow, sometimes slower than dial-up Internet access due to broadband and processor limitations. 

So, as a business, how do you accommodate all these devices and limitations and still reach your customers? There are several right answers within the world of mobile, but first you have to know what those options are and which one is right for you. The mobile highway contains four lanes to your destination: Responsive mobile website, mobile-specific website, a mobile web app, and a native web app.

Responsive Mobile Websites—Resized or Reformatted?

A responsive mobile website responds to changes in the size of a browser window by adjusting the width and its content to fit the space available. It is easy to update, cross-platformed, and optimized for search. There are two approaches in building a responsive mobile website: resized or reformatted. A resized responsive mobile website is scalable, meaning it is the same as the desktop website, but it can be pinched down, up, to the side, or zoomed in. The benefits of this option are that it is the most cost-effective and contains the identical information that is on the desktop website. The reformatted responsive mobile website is a limited version of the desktop website reorganized, meaning it can have elements removed from the original desktop website (such as images, blog entries, and other components), so that what remains are the bare necessities, a simplified mobile version of the desktop. The benefits of this option are that it is cost-effective, eliminates the need for pinching and expanding for readability, and reduces load time by removing any element that can tax the mobile processor.

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The Resized Responsive Mobile Website in this example above presents a miniature, scalable version of the desktop website. All elements are present and can be pinched larger for readability. This is the most cost-effective mobile solution, but depends on the methodology of the desktop development to be a viable option.

The Reformatted Responsive Mobile Website in this example above captures the essence of the main website with elements (such as videos, images, special integration, etc.) that require extra processing removed for mobile compatibility. All content information is pulled from the same database the desktop draws its content from.

Mobile-Specific Website

A mobile-specific site is one that is designed completely separate from the desktop. Its design and content keep the integrity of the brand, but the mobile-specific site is experientually and exclusively designed with the mobile user in mind (i.e., large buttons instead of links, menus that fill the screen, swipe capability to accommodate touch screens, and limited and optimized use of photography and video to cater to the smaller processing capabilities). The hierarchy of information is pared down from the desktop, directing mobile users to their likely purpose more quickly. A mobile-specific site is either automatically redirected from the desktop URL according to the the device's screen size or it has its own URL altogether. The benefits of this option are that it is a cost-effective solution (albeit typically more than responsive options) and is designed specifically with touch screen nuances and mobile-user engagement in mind.

Mobile Specific Websites have their own design and URL or redirect to cater specifically to the mobile user and the touch screen environment. It's the best option if you have a highly interactive desktop site built in Flash, a highly engaging site, or want to cater and market to the mobile-user. They typically cost more to develop than responsive solutions, but are less costly than app development.

Native Mobile App

Native apps are downloaded applications–from, for example, Apple's App Store, Google Play, or from other online application-related resources—and then installed on a mobile device, eliminating the need for a browser. The name is derived from the fact that these apps are written in the same language as the operating system of the device they are installed on. The native app can interface with the device's native features, information, and hardware (camera, GPS-location, etc.), and usually perform faster than mobile web apps. However, this product can cost more because it takes a good deal of time to develop. A separate app must be developed for each operating system to work on every device: Java (Android), Objective-C (iOS), and Visual C++ (Windows and Mobile).

The benefits of choosing this mobile option solution include a superior, feature-rich mobile-user experience; mobile-optimized performance; a polished look and smooth navigation; and the capacity to maximize the software and hardware capabilities of smartphones, such as GPS, the camera, push notifications, and the accelerometer. Additionally, users can access and use native apps when they're offline, which you can't do with mobile websites or mobile web apps. Note: Some native apps also require Internet connection for updates and data integration even though they are actually installed on the device.

Mobile Web App

While mobile web apps appear similar to the native app (most mobile users can't tell the difference), they differ in the manner in which they are built and rendered. Unlike native apps, a mobile app requires an Internet connection and a browser (at least initially) as it is not actually installed on the user's device but rather implemented from a web server.

A mobile web app is a hybrid of a mobile-specific website and a native app. The biggest advantage to a web app, besides the look and feel, is the enormous cost savings as well as the reduced development time. Because most Android-based products and iOS (iPhone, iPod, and iPad) leverage sophisticated mobile browsers (i.e. Mobile Chrome and Mobile Safari), mobile web apps are an excellent alternative to the more expensive native app. They are easy to update, cross-platform-developed, optimized for search and analytics, and can work double-duty as a mobile website and a native app. A web app can even be made available for "download" from your homepage or from an app store.

Another advantage a web app has over a native app is that the mobile user never has to "update," because the "updates" are controlled by the company, meaning the company ensures that the mobile user has the latest version of its app. Some Goliath examples of web-based apps are Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, eBay, and many more. Benefits to mobile web apps are that it can deliver broad, constantly changing content like a news readers or sports score site; is more cost-effective than a native app to develop; is much easier to include advertising as a source of revenue than a native app; and is not subject to the approval process and revenue sharing agreements that the App Store, Google Play and the like require.

Now that you know what mobile solution options are out there, which one will help you reach your destination? First of all, it's important to always keep your mobile users and their needs in mind by asking yourself a few questions...
  • What is your budget? 
  • What is the purpose of the mobile site? Information only? E-commerce? Entertainment? Personal account access? 
  • What kind of interactivity or features do you require? (And what kind would you like?) 
  • Do you need to access mobile devices' capabilities? If so, which ones? 
  • How is your desktop site built? 
  • What kind of data mining do you need to retrieve? 

Answers to these questions, and more, will help determine the best route for your company. Navigating the mobile information highway can lead you through some rough terrain, but with a good mobile strategy, you'll find yourself cruising the highway with the sun at your back.

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