2013 – the year of the mobile

Recently E-Consultancy recently wrote about the ‘most exciting digital opportunity for marketers in the coming year’ being mobile optimisation. They are right, there is little doubt about that, and their stats are very compelling. They rightly mention that a wider mobile experience is necessary, considering the whole mobile strategy rather than simply creating a mobile site or making sure content works. But something I feel they don’t highlight enough is the need for a robust strategy that aims to understand the whole perspective, as every business is different and so are their customers.

Having run mobile strategies for large global brands, the importance of understanding the context, appetite and behaviour of their customers on mobile is paramount in approaching mobile optimisation of their digital assets. It isn’t just about making everything work well on mobile, although that is a big part of it, it is about understanding how your customers want to do things on mobile devices, because it is not the same for all customers across all businesses.

The first thing to understand about “mobile” is that it has more than one meaning. In the case of this article I am referring to mobile devices (i.e. the handsets) and also people being mobile (i.e. moving around). Understanding both of these in the context of your mobile strategy is extremely important because thinking about a user journey for your customer whilst they are in the queue at the station, whilst looking at their android phone, is going to be different to to your customer sat at home in the evening on their laptop or desktop computer.

Mindset and context are all important as it changes our expectations of a site and the behaviour we exhibit as users of devices is different because of this:

  • Mobile devices are what we call ‘sit forward’, in that you tend to be sat forward looking at them for a short period of time, whilst on the move. Your ideal user journey is therefore short, involves browsing by flicking quickly through things at pace and is often shallow. As a user you make a decision about whether the content is what you want very quickly and you expect the page to be visual rather than text based. The most important thing is that as a user they are often on the move so are time poor and want content quickly.
  • Tablet devices are what we call ‘sit back’, as usually we have a little more time to think about what we are doing and are also slightly more relaxed. Users therefore expect more on the page as they are more willing to spend a little time engaging with the content, but on touch screen devices it is important to make sure the experience is engaging, visual and information and intuitive otherwise it simply won’t fit the medium. Often these are ‘browsing’ journeys as people tend to ‘free wheel’ around content as their whim takes them.
  • Desktop (or laptop) computers are more ‘premeditated’ and often involve some amount of thought before engaging. For example, it might be a research task being undertaken and therefore a user is more targetted and focussed on what they are looking for. These journeys tend to require more information, more text (although still not too much) and longer periods of time on pages. Often multiple tabs would be open on the browser and users will keep pages open and flick between them. This is the detailed information journey that takes more time and really needs to make sense in terms of linking between content.

Although there is no 100% rule on how people use one device over another, the above is a good way of thinking about it as a start point and needs to be considered as part of planning a mobile strategy. It is important to understand what the key ‘must have’ points are and make sure they are facilitated in the mobile journey. But understanding that there is a different mindset to how we consume content depending on the device will ultimately lead to planning the content to be suitable for each channel.

Creating and understanding your personas is another key consideration. There are no hard and fast rules about how an audience behaves so one business cannot assume that their mobile website can work in the same way as another’s. In strategies I have managed we have spent a considerable amount of time understanding exactly how and when an expat would use his or her mobile and therefore what they would want to know at that time, versus when and where they would use a desktop or tablet. This was key in understanding the rapidity at which they not only want but need to access content and therefore how we make it available to them.

Another consideration that comes out of this understanding is the technical approach to take with optimising for mobile. Do you go for a mobile website, a responsive site or an app?

  • Mobile websites are separate sites, often with m.website.com as their URL. They exist as separate sites to the desktop site and they recognise that a fundamentally different experience is needed for mobile devices than for desktop sites. If your content needs to be detailed, in depth and very different on a desktop site to a mobile site then it is worth considering this approach, but remember that it requires additional maintenance, a whole different build and a different set of content.
  • Responsive websites are the new buzz word in digital, even though they have been around for a while. This is when you have a single website that dynamically changes itself to suit the resolution of the device being used to view it. A key consideration is ‘responsive experience’ rather than responsive design as it is both technically possible and often required (from a UX POV) to radically change the user experience depending on the device being used. The key thing about this approach is that it is one website for all and therefore the planning of this is quite key. Often starting from mobile first and building up is a good way to make sure that the mobile site has everything that is needed before working out how to pad out the desktop, rather than being left trying to work out how you would fit all the content from a desktop site onto a mobile screen.
  • Apps are the other main option. Everyone wants an app but there are key questions that you should ask yourself before building one; does the process I am building live by itself? do my users need to be able to do it offline? does it require features from a mobile device? does the app provide a solution for a genuine need? There are other questions as well, but if the answer to all of the above is ‘no’ then you shouldn’t have an app. Apps are designed to be ‘pockets’ of functionality, serving a specific need and allowing users to do this without needing regular connections to the internet or other resources.

Often a mobile strategy will include one or more of the above and I have excluded web apps from the list as they are arguably mobile websites. Understanding where your business sits and where it aims to sit in the future on the spectrum of the above is quite important. If your user-base is unlikely to use an app then focussing your effort on that area is really not the best course of action. However, if your research shows your future market will be interested and actively using apps then having it on the long-term plan is important.

Which leads me to my last major point; create a road-map. It is another one of the corporate buzz words but the concept is important. I like to think of a road-map as like looking down a lens. The stuff in the foreground (i.e. the next few months to a year) should be crisply in focus. You should know what you are doing in the next year and you should be planning in detail and working towards delivering it. The further away you look the less in focus it is, meaning that the further along your timeline you look the less defined your work is. This recognises that the further down the line you look the more uncertainty there is about what might change in the wider world. Setting an exact plan for the next five years would be silly as you are unable to respond to unforeseen changes, but also not having a general direction to work in would be equally silly because you can’t work towards anything and you can’t build the foundations for the bigger picture now.

And this brings us full circle, because without doing the robust planning and research for your strategy up front you can’t start to formulate short and long term goals, because you don’t know what your targets are. But with good planning and research you can predict, with reasonable certainty, what your future userbase is, how they will behave and in what way they will engage with your business across devices. Using this information you can plan your immediate actions and make sure they are working towards the long term picture, whilst making sure that the long term plan is clear but flexible in case things drastically change.

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