It’s 2013, so I shouldn’t have to tell you that enterprises need a mobile strategy. After all, computer sales are waning, and pretty soon the majority of Earth’s population will have smartphones. Actually, I’m pretty sure we are already there. Some carriers have phased out everything but smartphones, and with over 5 billion phones out there, it looks as though the majority of the planet is unwired for mobile. (I suspect it’s only a matter of time before my dog will have a mobile device.)
So mobile, including tablet, is shifting to become the primary platform. That means your mobile strategy can’t be an afterthought any more. But does that also mean your mobile strategy is the same as your desktop strategy? Not necessarily.
We know that Microsoft is working toward a goal where all devices will run the same operating system and the same interfaces: what you can do on your PC you can do on your tablet and smartphone. (And of course Apple hopes that your next operating system will be iTunes.) But while all devices, mobile and desktop, may soon be able to do the same things, users may not want to do the same things with all those devices.
This is an important distinction. Case in point: imagine your next major electronics purchase. You might do research on a desktop computer, comparing brands and specifications, reliability and features. You may check multiple sites searching for reviews and reliability, such as Consumer Reports. You may compare prices at Amazon, eBay, and others. Most of this work you’d likely do at your desk.
But then you hit the road to see, handle, and perhaps purchase the item. Once you are in the store you see a few different models—ones you didn’t research—and they have tempting prices or features. Now, on your mobile device, you can quickly look up those models. Is this the same as your desktop research? No, now you want fast answers with pinpoint accuracy. You don’t want to compare 7 different models; you are standing in the store, and you don’t have time, patience, or the physical form factor for a major research project. And maybe it’s noisy, the lighting is bad, and your kid is asking you questions.
Play this scenario out for almost anything you might research at home and later look up on a smartphone. You may browse recipes while meal planning at your desk, but you might quickly look up the difference between “natural, organic, and raw honey” while standing in the grocery aisle, as I recently did. You may look up a DIY how-to video on YouTube, but standing in Lowes or Home Depot you might want to do a quick catalog search on a piece of hardware.
You might plan your diet and workouts, or sign up for a tennis tournament, or search for a good mechanic while at your desk, but from your mobile device these same topics change: you might track your progress on a run using MapMyFitness, or watch a quick YouTube video of tennis serve tips, or find the closest cheapest gas using your GasBuddy app.
The point is, what people do when mobile is different from what they do deskside. It isn’t just that mobile devices are still too limiting, it’s that human behavior when mobile is different from behavior when planted at a computer. The fine big monitor and full keyboard of a desktop computer (or modern laptop) does make a difference, but the real difference is the environment and the human factor. We humans simply do different things when away from our desks. Our time, attention, and bandwidth compresses, just as our physical environment (interruptions, activities, ambient lighting, background sound level) changes.
So your mobile strategy has to take into consideration what the user wants to do when mobile.
I recently met with a Fortune 500 manufacturer, who said that their mobile strategy was to put everything they had on the web onto mobile as well. That’s a fine goal, and admirable. Broad mobile access to content is far beyond what many enterprises have achieved today; all too often the corporate site is coded in such a way that it falls apart or is simply too unwieldy on a mobile device.
But when I asked them what they were planning to do to optimize for key mobile tasks, they stared at me blankly. Isn’t it enough to convert their web properties to HTML5 and make everything widely accessible? Yes and no. HTML5 can work effectively, if your developers are savvy in what they are doing, and they take the time to wireframe for mobile. Then can have the user interface shift effectively, to accommodate the layout and lower bandwidth requirements of mobile devices.
But that’s not the same as optimizing for mobile users and the mobile environment. To borrow from Richard Saul Wurman, the job of the information architect is to define the user’s path to knowledge. That starts with understanding what users want to do when mobile.
Yes, some users may want to do everything. But if you study the analytics, you will see that desktop users will perform different tasks—or simply visit different pages—than mobile users. And while your initial web analytics data may be skewed, because today your mobile users are simply unable to do some of the tasks that they want to do, you can still do a good heuristic analysis to figure out what they were up to, and how you might best accommodate them.
You will likely find that there are mobile tasks your site never sought to achieve, because it was designed for the desktop (by people sitting at a desktop). Ultimately, what users will want to do depends on your business. You may discover that your catalog is used differently by mobile users, or that mobile users need quick access to self-service support or troubleshooting tips. Or a buying guide, or nutrition information, or a parts list.
So the first job is to find out what your mobile users most need. Then you have to determine how to best give them access to that information. Often this just means simpler layout (to reduce left-right scrolling and to eliminate bandwidth-intensive graphics) and mobile-optimized navigation for quick access to content.
In the end, you will discover that mobile users tend to prefer answers over content, that their patience is measured in seconds not minutes, and that they prefer information, not branding. This will lead you to create mobile-optimized interfaces and information paths that cater to the mobile user. Remember, your site can detect mobile devices and adapt accordingly. And if you fail to make the effort, do you think the user will adapt instead? Or will they go elsewhere, in search of faster answers?