Mobile devices have created new opportunities for retailers. This is not news. What is news these days is debate about different approaches to mobile-related web design problems. We here at content26 didn’t know much beyond the 101 level about this topic, so I inquired with a few experts in the related fields of user experience, web design, and digital media. I’ll be summarizing the interviews and drawing some conclusions in this article.
If you’re just now showing up to the entire conversation, a lot of the debate revolves around responsive web design, which scales the content, images, and overall presentation of a site to different screen sizes. It is an alternative to having different sites for different devices and is often commended for being future-proof and simpler in the long run because all website changes are managed in a single location.
Mobile Web Design Options
Responsive design is the newest addition to a short list of options for mobile design that also includes mobile-specific sites, native apps, and hybrid apps. My purpose is not to discuss the pros and cons of all these choices. For more detail about mobile web delivery methods and information architecture, I refer you to Elaine McVicar’s excellent article on UX Booth, Designing for Mobile, Part 1: Information Architecture.
What I will do here is review key points about responsive design and mobile web use with a focus on commerce and considerations for retailers.
The Arguments So Far
After talking to a few people who know more about mobile platforms than we do, I can now safely make two conclusions: consistency and user experience (UX) are the primary considerations when designing a site for mobile (duh), and responsive design is not the one true solution to those considerations.
Why not? As Tina Courtney-Brown put it, “It’s also becoming more and more critical to have a mobile-specific experience, as typical websites often do not fare well on mobile devices.” Of course, simply having a mobile-specific site does not solve all problems. Mobile sites are usually created to meet different needs than desktop sites, to varying degrees of success. Elaine McVicar emphasized the shortcomings of a mobile-specific approach:
… from personal experience people want to find content quickly and easily. If they know content exists on a desktop site and know how to find it there, it can be very frustrating to battle with a mobile site that thinks it knows what they want to see and cuts out content deemed unnecessary.
The tension between predicting what web users want to do on different devices and designing for those predictions versus not limiting information on mobile sites is inevitable. This issue is particularly salient to commerce. In 2012, Google’s New Multi-Screen World Study found that 67 percent of participants used multiple screens sequentially when shopping online. And most people (65 percent) started that activity on a smartphone. As Bob Boiko told my colleague Trinity Hartman during a meetup earlier this spring:
Multichannel isn’t good enough. Companies need to be thinking multi-user and multi-audience. All companies should be tailoring information to the delivery device and the target audience.
But tailoring information doesn’t mean leaving out information. Consistency on retail sites needs to happen at multiple levels–in product details, in information architecture, and in overall experience.
Opinion is divided on what kind of mobile offering is better for consistency. Managing content on one central website (and using responsive design) is in some ways a guarantee–the information you deliver to all devices is the same.
However, a poorly designed responsive website may not provide a consistent user experience, a hazy but nonetheless important concept. As Elaine said, “In some contexts, providing a similar experience on both devices means you could be providing a substandard experience on both.”
Depending on your business, consumers are likely to use your mobile site for product details, geolocation tasks, or company information. Less often (but maybe not for much longer), they’ll want to actually purchase something from a mobile device. Does that mean you should ignore the checkout functionality? Of course not. Brian Casel reminds us:
Don’t underestimate the importance of having a top-notch user experience on your website, from desktop to tablet to mobile. Even if only a small portion of your product sales come via your website, you can bet that a large majority of your customers look to your website to research you before making a buying decision.
I’ve mentioned information architecture a couple of times now, but this is where it really shines–how you organize your content becomes more important as the screen size shrinks. Refer to Elaine’s Designing for Mobile article mentioned above (and Part 2: Interaction Design) and revisit our Smart Content series to read more about UX topics such as content organization.
What the User Wants
Everyone says (and by everyone, I mean our four interview subjects) it’s a mistake to limit mobile content to what you think your customers want to see. Simply put, “assumptions are dangerous.” This does not mean companies aren’t trying to figure out what people do on mobile devices and structure content around those predictions.
This issue of what consumers want on mobile intersects with future-proofing, an oft-cited benefit of responsive design. Tina, the only interview subject who expressed to Content Ping serious reservations about responsive design, doesn’t think future-proofing is a valid concern:
“The cardinal rule with producing content has nothing to do with considering future trends, technologies, etc. Produce content that is tailored specifically to your audience and reflects what you know they want right here and now.”
Sara said something very similar regarding product research on mobile phones:
I tend to believe in the “as much content as necessary” camp, which is different than the “as much content as possible” camp. You need to know your users, buyers, and customers. And you need to understand what information is valuable to people and give it to them.
Although Sara focuses on content strategy, not design, her stance that all content should be structured, tagged, and centrally stored is highly relevant to cross-device online retail strategies. Particularly if that strategy includes separate websites for laptops and mobile devices; consumers always want consistency.
Tailor your content to what your users want from your company, not to what they want from their devices. You cannot know the latter, but you’d better know the former if you want to stay in business.