Going Mobile, Part II: When to Go Mobile | Reuse Your Web Design or Start from Scratch?

By Janet M. Six

Published: November 8, 2010

Send your questions to Ask UXmatters and get answers from our experts—some of the top professionals in UX.

In this edition of Ask UXmatters—which is the second in a two-part series focusing on user experience design for mobile devices—our experts discuss how you should determine whether to

  • create a mobile version of your Web site or application
  • reuse your existing Web site’s or Web application’s design or start your mobile design from scratch

Ask UXmatters is a monthly column on UXmatters, in which our panel of UX experts answers our readers’ questions about various user experience matters. To get answers to your own questions about UX strategy, design, user research, or any other topic of interest to UX professionals in an upcoming edition of Ask UXmatters, please send your questions to us at: ask.uxmatters@uxmatters.com.

The following experts have contributed answers to this month’s edition of Ask UXmatters:

  • Steve Baty—Principal of Meld Studios; Vice President of IxDA; UXmatters columnist
  • Peter Bogaards—Community Builder and Coach at Informaat; Owner of BogieLand—and the Informaat Mobile UX Team
  • Pabini Gabriel-Petit—Publisher and Editor in Chief, UXmatters; Principal User Experience Architect at Spirit Softworks; Founding Director of Interaction Design Association (IxDA); UXmatters columnist
  • Suzanne Ginsburg—Principal at Ginsburg Design; author of Designing the iPhone User Experience: A User-Centered Approach to Sketching and Prototyping iPhone Apps
  • David Kozatch—Principal at DIG
  • Shanshan Ma—Senior Analyst, User Experience at BusinessOnLine; UXmatters columnist
  • Robert Reimann—Lead Interaction Designer at Sonos, Inc; Past-President, Interaction Design Association (IxDA)
  • Paul Sherman—Principal at Sherman Group User Experience; Vice President of Usability Professionals’ Association; UXmatters columnist
  • Daniel Szuc—Principal and Cofounder of Apogee Usability Asia Ltd.
  • Gabriel White—Platform Design and Innovation Manager at Grameen Foundation Uganda
  • Russell Wilson—Vice President of Product Design at NetQos

When Should You Create a Mobile Version of Your Web Site or Application?

Q: How do you determine whether you should create a mobile version of your Web site or app? And how do you decide whether it would be best to create a mobile Web app or an app for a specific mobile device?—from a UXmatters reader

What Should You Consider First?

“It’s … tempting to take something that works really well on a computer and try to replicate it on mobile devices.”
—Daniel Szuc

“It’s easy to get caught up with new devices, new technologies, and new platforms. But it’s harder to determine whether the thing you are designing will work well for a particular device or platform,” warns Daniel. “It’s also tempting to take something that works really well on a computer and try to replicate it on mobile devices. Some questions to help you make your decision:

  • What tasks are users trying to complete?
  • What tasks that work well on a larger screen or in a desktop environment would lend themselves well to scaling down for mobile?
  • Would particular tasks adapt well to a mobile context? For example, consider a task’s number of steps, presentation, the effort it requires, and whether it’s something a user would want to do on the move.
  • What would a task look like if you redesigned it for a mobile context? What problems and positives would users face?
  • How does the user interface framework for a particular mobile device or platform—for example, iPhone, Android, Windows Mobile, or RIM—suit your application’s tasks? Would your app design work well across different mobile platforms?
  • What would be the barriers to use for particular tasks in a mobile context?
  • How does the download performance of mobile providers help or hinder users’ completion of tasks?”
“Check your Web statistics to find out the types of devices and platforms on which people are currently using your application….”—Peter Bogaards and the Informaat Mobile UX Team

“You have to keep a few things in mind,” recommends Peter and the Informaat Mobile UX Team:

  • Check your Web statistics to find out the types of devices and platforms on which people are currently using your application, then conduct some user research to further explore what you learn. If you detect a significant need, it becomes worthwhile to consider mobile initiatives.
  • Offering mobile services can also be a more strategic decision. For example, your strategy might be to get closer to your customers, appeal to new target groups, or offer new services.
  • Do some research on how your current services perform on popular mobile devices. Are users satisfied with their actual experience? Or do you need to do more to satisfy them?
  • Do you want to reach a broad audience rather than offering a Web site or app specifically for mobile devices—keeping your investment minimal and supporting only occasional mobile usage—then decide later on whether to develop a mobile Web site or app?
  • Do you want to deliver a proper user interface for a particular mobile device—using device-specific features and supporting regular usage—or target a specific audience, then decide whether to develop a mobile app?”
Business goals and the needs of your target audience drive the decision regarding whether to design for multiple platforms.”—Paul Sherman

“Business goals and the needs of your target audience drive the decision regarding whether to design for multiple platforms,” states Paul.

Is There a Market for Your Mobile Web Site or App?

“There has to be a clear value proposition for a mobile version of your product or service, and that will likely be different from the reasons people use your desktop offering.”—Gabriel White

“Mobile applications and Web sites provide a great way to stay connected with people when they are on the go,” replies Gabriel. “However, simply creating a mobile version of your offering isn’t enough to ensure customers will use it. There has to be a clear value proposition for a mobile version of your product or service, and that will likely be different from the reasons people use your desktop offering.

  • What unmet needs could you support through the mobile channel?
  • What use cases make mobile a compelling channel for your users?
  • And most important, which of your customers are going to be motivated or able to access your offering through their mobile device?

“Aside from functional considerations, having your product or service ever-present on users’ devices as a mobile app would encourage usage and also increase brand awareness through persistent advertising for your offering.”

“If time to market is critical or your competitors are not yet in the mobile app space, a mobile Web app could buy you some time until you can build a mobile app.”—Robert Reimann

“This is the kind of thing you can answer with market or user experience surveys,” answers Robert. “What are people using your Web site for? Is it something they have a need to access on the go? What are the functions they use most and the activities they perform most with your site when on the go?

“Users perceive mobile apps as more convenient and desirable than mobile Web sites. In the latter case, the browser user interface is still present, which can be confining and confusing. Plus, mobile apps are simply a way users have come to expect to interact with mobile content. If your competitors have mobile apps, it’s a good bet you’ll want to follow suit. But if time to market is critical or your competitors are not yet in the mobile app space, a mobile Web app could buy you some time until you can build a mobile app.”

“Find out what your customers do, then provide the proper channels of communication and interaction.”—Peter Bogaards and the Informaat Mobile UX Team

“Mobile is a means to an end,” suggests Peter and the Informaat Mobile UX Team. “So, you need to be clear on what that end is. You first need to have an idea of how to interact with your customers, then you can decide whether to go mobile. Find out what your customers do, then provide the proper channels of communication and interaction. You can also take a cross-channel approach and enable your customers to move from channel to channel.”

“Talking to your users will allow you find out whether mobile is important to them and what kinds of functionality and what type of user experience they might be looking for.”—David Kozatch

“Should you develop a mobile app? Only if your users expect to access your Web application from a mobile device,” recommends David. “Your user logs should be able to tell you how often this occurs now. Talking to your users will allow you find out whether mobile is important to them and what kinds of functionality and what type of user experience they might be looking for. You might start with a simple SurveyMonkey questionnaire on your current Web site to quickly gather some information about your users’ preferences for mobile.”

Should You Develop a Native App or a Web App?

“Mobile apps can provide a richer, more responsive user experience and tighter device integration than a mobile Web app. However, native applications are more costly to build and also limit your market reach.”—Gabriel White

“How do you decide whether it would be best to create a mobile Web app or an app for a specific mobile device?” queries Gabriel. “Mobile apps can provide a richer, more responsive user experience and tighter device integration than a mobile Web app. However, native applications are more costly to build and also limit your market reach. The mobile Web is great for occasional content consumption or transactions. But to deliver more sophisticated experiences or for heavily used services, users expect organizations to provide them with an application they designed especially for a particular mobile device.”

“If your app needs to access the device or its content—for example, its camera, accelerometer, or address book—you must create a native app, because Web apps can’t access these features—with the exception of GPS.”—Suzanne Ginsburg

“Companies need to consider their app’s goals before deciding whether to create a native app or a Web app for mobile devices,” answers Suzanne. “First, if your app needs to access the device or its content—for example, its camera, accelerometer, or address book—you must create a native app, because Web apps can’t access these features—with the exception of GPS. This limitation may eventually disappear as W3C standards evolve, but at present, going native is the only option.

“Another consideration is your app’s genre. While Web apps can be very effective for news and productivity tools, most immersive apps like games require OpenGL, which is available only to native apps. Web apps can use a similar standard called WebGL, but it’s not yet widely deployed.

“Finally, companies need to evaluate their app’s monetization strategy. As things stand now, submitting an app to a centralized app store—for example, the Apple App Store—simplifies micropayments, because a third party facilitates sales transactions. It’s also possible to charge directly for Web apps, but that requires more overhead, because companies must manage their own micropayment system. Moreover, users are less accustomed to paying for Web apps, so may be unwilling to set up payments for each app.

“If device access, OpenGL, or micropayments are essential for your app, you may come to the conclusion that a native app is the way to go. Your next consideration would be platform support: should you design for the iPhone, Android, BlackBerry, and Windows Mobile? Designing custom apps for several different platforms is a significant undertaking, from the perspectives of both design and development. Some companies—for example, Facebook and Yelp—make the additional investment, because they want to create an optimal experience for each device.

“Designing custom apps for several different platforms is a significant undertaking…. Some companies … make the additional investment, because they want to create an optimal experience for each device.”—Suzanne Ginsburg

“However, most companies can’t afford to create two, three, or four separate apps! For those companies, it’s probably best to consider solutions like PhoneGap, Rhomobile, or Sencha. These services enable developers to create hybrid apps, which are essentially Web apps with access to native features. Whatever your company decides to do, try to plan ahead for cross-platform support. Many companies choose to start with one platform and postpone cross-platform decisions. However, thinking about these issues early on saves valuable design and development time in the future.”

“Companies develop apps for multiple operating systems to obtain greater market reach…. For mobile Web apps, however, users with different mobile devices can get nearly the same experience, so there is no need to develop multiple versions for different operating systems.”—Shanshan Ma

“The first factor is the choice of platform and development redundancy,” suggests Shanshan. “Usually, companies develop apps for multiple operating systems to obtain greater market reach—that is, so users on a wide range of different smartphones can install their apps. For mobile Web apps, however, users with different mobile devices can get nearly the same experience, so there is no need to develop multiple versions for different operating systems.

“Another factor is upgradability. Applications are difficult to maintain and upgrade once users have downloaded them. Every new release with bug fixes requires users to go through the approval process of the app store on which you’re selling your app. Then, users also need to go through the download process once again to get the latest version. On the other hand, users get the most up-to-date version of a mobile Web app without any action on their part.

“A final factor is the necessity for an Internet connection,” continues Shanshan. “Users can use most native apps on their mobile devices without an Internet connection, while using a mobile Web app requires users to be connected to the Internet. If you offer a tool that users would find useful offline, and there is no need to connect to any external Web sites, a native app might be a good choice. However, if the service you offer requires real-time updates, a mobile Web app or Web site might be the optimal route to follow.”

Could a Mobile App Provide an Enhanced User Experience?

“Mobile devices can offer functionality or let people obtain information that’s useful within their current context. When developing an app for a mobile device, consider how it could enhance people’s experience of their current context of use….”—Pabini Gabriel-Petit

“Many people have very mobile lifestyles, and their mobile devices let them stay in touch with their family and friends and keep on top of the latest news,” observes Pabini. “More important, mobile devices can offer functionality or let people obtain information that’s useful within their current context. When developing an app for a mobile device, consider how it could enhance people’s experience of their current context of use—whether they’re traveling, commuting, shopping, hiking, visiting a museum, watching a game, or meeting up with friends. Today, mobile apps are letting people do things that were impossible just a few years ago. Look for opportunities to innovate by leveraging the special capabilities of mobile devices and providing functionality that goes beyond what your Web app can offer.”

“One of the intents for mobile devices is consuming information. However, people are less likely to read a novel on their iPhone than they are to scan sports scores, read short blogs posts, or check on the latest news headlines.”—Russell Wilson

“If your Web site or Web app produces content or delivers functionality that is appropriate for the intent and context of mobile devices, you should design for those devices,” replies Russell. “For example, if you have a blog, you should design a mobile version of it, because quite often, people read news and blogs on their mobile devices. One of the intents for mobile devices is consuming information. However, people are less likely to read a novel on their iPhone than they are to scan sports scores, read short blogs posts, or check on the latest news headlines.”

“For example, ESPN’s iPhone application focuses exclusively on delivering up-to-the-minute sports scores for people who are obsessed with tracking their teams’ progress—rather than on sports articles or photos,” offers Gabriel. “They have identified a clear need, target, and mobile value proposition and have been very successful as a result.”

How Can You Make Your Mobile Web Site or App Discoverable?

“App stores usually offer a large number of applications, so it can be challenging to rise above the clutter and get your app noticed.”—Shanshan Ma

“Another factor in the success of your mobile Web site or mobile app is discoverability,” suggests Shanshan. “App stores usually offer a large number of applications, so it can be challenging to rise above the clutter and get your app noticed. To rank higher in the app stores and attract users’ attention, you need to make a marketing investment once you’ve developed your app. But, once users have downloaded and installed your app, they can easily access it on their mobile device without having to go anywhere—as they would when using a mobile Web app. Users can find mobile Web sites and Web apps either by using a search engine or by typing its URL directly into the browser’s address bar. Users need not download or install a mobile Web app, but its discoverability may depend on your search engine marketing efforts, just as ensuring users can find your Web site does.”

“Do a deal with the developer of a mobile platform and get your mobile app on deck, so your preinstalled app will be ever-present on a mobile device’s home screen, without any effort on the part of users.”—Pabini Gabriel-Petit

“What’s the best way to overcome the challenges of discoverability you encounter when marketing your mobile app on the mobile Web or in an app store? Do a deal with the developer of a mobile platform and get your mobile app on deck, so your preinstalled app will be ever-present on a mobile device’s home screen, without any effort on the part of users,” recommends Pabini. “Obviously, when you consider the number of apps on the market and how few apps come preinstalled on them, these are not easy deals to win. Developing an innovative mobile app that leverages the unique capabilities of a particular mobile device is the most fruitful path to winning deals to get on deck. Such an app can drive the sales of new mobile devices that have advanced capabilities.”

Should You Reuse Your Existing Web Site’s or App’s Design or Start Your Mobile Design from Scratch?

Q: How can we effectively transform our current Web site or app into a mobile Web site or app? Or should we start from scratch on our UX design for a mobile app?—from a UXmatters reader

Assessing Your Application’s Core Strengths

“Take a look at your Web site or application and ask yourself whether there are specific elements that are critical to the experience you’re attempting to support and assess how well those would transfer from a Web environment to mobile.”—Steve Baty

“There’s no simple answer to this question,” replies Steve. “I would suggest that you take a look at your Web site or application and ask yourself whether there are specific elements that are critical to the experience you’re attempting to support and assess how well those would transfer from a Web environment to mobile. If they don’t, start from scratch; but if they do, look at elements further down the list.”

“What are the existing features of your product or service that would be most appropriate for your customers when they are mobile? What new features could be compelling if you had a mobile channel?”—Gabriel White

“Your mobile application or Web site should build on the core value proposition and user experience principles of existing touchpoints,” replies Gabriel. “Most important, you should build on your strengths by delivering services that are appropriate for mobile use. What are the existing features of your product or service that would be most appropriate for your customers when they are mobile? What new features could be compelling if you had a mobile channel? Be ruthless when scoping the capabilities of your mobile offering; people have little tolerance for meaningless feature creep.”

“If a substantial portion of Web site visits come from mobile devices, it’s time to start thinking about going mobile.”—Shanshan Ma

“The first step is performing an analytics audit on your current Web site and determining how much of your Web site traffic comes from mobile devices,” advises Shanshan. “If a substantial portion of Web site visits come from mobile devices, it’s time to start thinking about going mobile. Once you’ve audited your Web analytics data, do more research and investigation. A simple survey or questionnaire can help you get firsthand information about your users. Questions to ask include: What mobile devices are your users currently using? How often do they use their mobile devices to access your site? What kind of tasks do they perform on your Web site when using a mobile device? When and where are they using your site? Such data can help you gain a deeper understanding of your current Web site’s mobile potential and what content and functionality to provide in a mobile version.”

“Mine your Web analytics to determine what your application’s most important and frequently used features and user activities are, then make the ones that seem best suited for mobile use the core of your mobile app.”—Robert Reimann

“You should assume that, for a handheld or mobile app, you’ll need to start from scratch as far as the presentation layer is concerned,” recommends Robert. “List and simple grid-based interactions seem to work best on small touchscreens and represent models to which users are accustomed. Do some user and market studies or mine your Web analytics to determine what your application’s most important and frequently used features and user activities are, then make the ones that seem best suited for mobile use the core of your mobile app. Judiciously add secondary features that enhance your app’s mobile experience and your brand, creating a mobile-centric user experience that empowers mobile users, while staying simple and true to your app’s core strengths.”

Approaching Design for Mobile Devices

“Much depends on the complexity of your Web site, the integration of your services with the needs and context of mobile use, and the devices you target.”—Peter Bogaards and the Informaat Mobile UX Team

“Start with a tabula rasa and dream up your ideal mobile service,” recommends Peter and the Informaat Mobile UX Team. “Remember, in maximum of five steps, any potential user of your mobile Web site needs to get what he wants—or in three steps, to provide the best possible mobile user experience. Once you’ve visualized your dream service, look at your current Web site. If you’d started there, you would already have put a lot of constraints on your thinking. When you merely try to improve on your current site, you’ll never get far. Now, you can go for the best and start with a stripped-down version of your dream.

“Much depends on the complexity of your Web site, the integration of your services with the needs and context of mobile use, and the devices you target. Be aware that adding a mobile service can lead to your making significant changes in your app. It may have more or fewer features than your current site, require changes in user identification and authorization, and even require changes in your business processes.”

“The approach you should take depends on your current platform and the information and capabilities that you provide.”—Paul Sherman

“The approach you should take depends on your current platform and the information and capabilities that you provide,” answers Paul. “If you’re using a solid content management system (CMS), you should be able to achieve adequate separation of content and presentation to easily create a mobile version of your Web site. Then you can rely on client detection to route visitors to the appropriate version.”

“The user interface should be instantly familiar, yet customized to meet users’ expectations for a mobile experience….”—David Kozatch

“What are the key content areas or buckets you can retain that will serve as jumping off points to deliver on your existing Web user experience?” asks David. “The user interface should be instantly familiar, yet customized to meet users’ expectations for a mobile experience—for example, less reliance on long blocks of text, greater use of key action words, and fewer layers of navigation. If you can easily reformat your Web site for mobile devices and still deliver a great user experience, perhaps you won’t need to create a dedicated app for each type of device.”

“For a more complex Web site, you have to design for the mobile device, which means rethinking your content and adapting it for that medium.”
—Russell Wilson

“Many off-the-shelf blogging systems offer plugins that can deliver a mobile version of your blog to anyone who browses a blog using a mobile device,” says Russell. “What these plugins often do is strip out excess and simplify. For a blog, this means paring a page down to its title and content, making it as easy as possible for a reader to move through posts. This approach works for some specific categories of sites like blogs. But for a more complex Web site, you have to design for the mobile device, which means rethinking your content and adapting it for that medium. What is a perfect design for a Web site is rarely perfect for a mobile device. Design for the device.”

Leveraging the Capabilities of Mobile Devices

“Smart adaptation needs to drive your decision making. Don’t simply copy your existing Web site designs and shrink them for a small screen.”
—Gabriel White

“Smart adaptation needs to drive your decision making. Don’t simply copy your existing Web site designs and shrink them for a small screen,” answers Gabriel. “Keep design elements that define and differentiate your user experience, deliver functionality that’s most appropriate for the mobile context, and make sure you take advantage of the capabilities of and design standards for the platforms you’re targeting.

“On mobile devices, users are much less forgiving of idiosyncratic interaction styles than they might be when using a computer. So it’s very important to take the UX standards of the platforms you’re targeting into consideration when designing for mobile devices.”

“What are some of the features inherent in mobile devices that we can take advantage of to transcend or enhance the current Web experience…?”
—David Kozatch

“What are some of the features inherent in mobile devices that we can take advantage of to transcend or enhance the current Web experience—for example, GPS, video player, camera integration, or text alerts?” queries David. “How does the delivery of these features fit with our goals and strategy? The answers to these questions can also help you to decide whether developing a unique mobile app is important.”

“Can you enhance interactions through an awareness of location or proximity? How readily could you weave these enhancements into your existing site or app?”—Steve Baty

Likewise, Steve asks, “Are there ways to enhance the experience of your Web site or Web app using the device characteristics of a mobile phone—touch gestures, for example? Can you enhance interactions through an awareness of location or proximity? How readily could you weave these enhancements into your existing site or app?”

Understanding Mobile Users

“Mobile users are quite a different species from PC users. They have different needs, especially regarding speed.”
—Peter Bogaards and the Informaat Mobile UX Team

“In general, you must realize that mobile users are quite a different species from PC users,” states Peter and the Informaat Mobile UX Team. “They have different needs, especially regarding speed. Some PC users surf the Internet for hours, but mobile users are impatient and need answers within a few seconds. Therefore, start with your users or customers first and identify their top goals. That’s the way to find your mobile users, not the other way around.”

“You can start from scratch, but you should also be able to leverage what you have already learned about your users from your user research in developing your Web site,” suggests Shanshan. “The key to developing an effective mobile Web site or app is prioritizing content or features for a particular user group that would like to access your site or use your product using a mobile phone.”

“The initial question should be What do our users want and need in a mobile app that we can deliver?”—David Kozatch

“Instead of asking How do we transform our Web site or mobile app? the initial question should be What do our users want and need in a mobile app that we can deliver?” recommends David. “Start by asking the team some key questions: What kind of experience do our users expect on our current site and can we deliver that same experience—or an even better one—in a streamlined mobile user interface? If you can’t do it well, you might not want to do it at all—your users will forgive you.”

Maintaining Your Brand on Mobile Devices

“It’s important that users have a familiar experience when connecting with you through their mobile device. Your brand and design principles should carry through to your mobile offering….”—Gabriel White

“How can you extend your brand experience to the mobile environment through the use of nomenclature, aesthetics, and any logo treatments?” asks David.

“It’s important that users have a familiar experience when connecting with you through their mobile device,” answers Gabriel. “Your brand and design principles should carry through to your mobile offering, but you also need to carefully adapt them to the design standards for mobile user interfaces—for example, touchscreen user interface standards.”

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