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The Challenge The issue that has wine entrepreneur ready to pop a cork

Bryan McCaw of WineAlign is spending big bucks bringing his company into the age of mobile devices.

J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

Each week, we seek expert advice to help a small or medium-sized business overcome a key issue.

WineAlign, a Web-based business that helps oenophiles select the perfect wine for any occasion, has spent $511,000 in software development fees since starting up in 2008. "And that's just development," says founder Bryan McCaw. "Not testing, quality assurance or anything else. The total is probably double that."

That's a lot of money for a company of five full-time people. Worse, Mr. McCaw thinks he's still falling behind because technology is evolving so fast.

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"We all know that the future is mobile," he says. "But we're behind. We're late to the game."

WineAlign, which is based in Toronto, has a stable of respected wine critics who review wines as they come into stores in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia. Users enter their postal codes and price point and indicate whether they want a red or white. A list of choices at the nearest store comes up immediately.

Registering gives users access to reviews. Those who pay $40 a year for a subscription can see the reviews as soon as they are posted, rather than having to wait 60 days. In the past year, WineAlign had more than 1.5 million unique visitors to its site. It has done a good job with search-engine optimization and has a high profile on Google, Mr. McCaw says.

In addition to the website, the company has an iPhone app. Users can scan barcodes on bottles for information, including suggested food pairings. An Android app is in the works.

WineAlign now needs to revamp its website, which was designed in 2008 – ancient times in the tech world – and at the same time make its content available on ever-proliferating mobile devices. "That's our real challenge right now, and that's what I'm losing sleep over," Mr. McCaw says.

He is considering going with "responsive Web design," touted by some as the Holy Grail to suit different-sized screens. Put simply, it automatically adapts a website's content to the device in use. For instance, three columns on a desktop could be reformatted into two longer columns on a tablet, and one long column on a smartphone.

"This is the way I'm leaning," Mr. McCaw says.

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One concern is that dedicated apps, such as on a smartphone, provide a better user experience. Another concern is advertising, which is where the company makes most of its revenue. The smaller screens on mobile devices can display fewer ads.

The Challenge: What's the best way for a small Web-based business to adapt to the mobile-device trend?

THE EXPERTS WEIGH IN

Tedde van Gelderen, president of Akendi, which specializes in user-experience research and design, Toronto

I recommend that Mr. McCaw avoid jumping to any design solution, and start with user research instead. By uncovering how users make use of his information, he could design his product to meet those needs instead of making best guesses.

That being said, a combination of the two approaches – responsive Web design and apps for mobile devices – would work best. Keep the apps and add a mobile-ready site. Here is why: A responsive website would scale the design to a smaller screen, but we recommend an "adaptive" website [where content changes to fit predetermined screen sizes rather than being fluid], as this would potentially lend itself to a faster response time in a mobile device. We can imagine that the user of the mobile app would use it mostly in-store. There, an app would result in faster response times – critical for shoppers.

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Lastly, the question of ads would be better thought of as adding new, additional views (and users). He may have space for fewer ads in the mobile world, but an increase in users would likely make up the difference.

Brian Nori, chief executive officer of Web Design 1, Toronto

A study from March of 2014 by app analytics provider Flurry indicates that users spent 2-3/4 hours per day on mobile devices. Mobile app usage accounted for 86 per cent of this time, which rose 6 per cent from 2013. Mobile Web usage, on the other hand, is on the decline, accounting for 22 minutes a day.

The trouble is that the bulk of interest in apps is in gaming and social media such as Facebook. This data concludes that the greatest potential for reaching mobile customers is through creating a responsive website.

Today's websites should also be social-media integrated. Wine buyers are socially motivated. A simple click of a "like" or "share" button will communicate to peers that they prefer a certain brand and this will help perpetuate Web traffic.

A problem I see with WineAlign is that it is a closed circuit, which negatively affects its public engagement. Opening its content would be beneficial not only on social media forums but simply in connection to major search engines. SEO alone can hold up an entire business platform if done properly but the content needs to be available.

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Steven Zussino, founder, GroceryAlerts.ca, Victoria

As a fellow website owner, I recommend doing a combination of both methods. Last year, we discovered that one out of four visitors to our website used a mobile device, including tablets. This year, the number has increased to around 45 per cent.

One suggestion I have that will lead to increased download of the mobile apps is to display a large button when a user visits the website using a mobile device. The button informs them that a mobile app is available for download before they move forward to the requested page.

It is expensive to develop an app for multiple platforms in addition to a major redesign, so I recommend getting feedback on the new design from a user group.

THREE THINGS THE COMPANY COULD DO NOW

Do research

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Don't just guess which formats will please users.

Go social

Integrate your site and apps with Facebook and other social media sites.

Alert users

Add a button saying that a mobile app is available for download.

Facing a challenge? If your company could use expert help, please contact us at smallbusiness@globeandmail.com.

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Interviews have been edited and condensed.

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