If you haven't started to think about creating a mobile website for your business, the time is nigh: Consumers are getting into the habit of hunting down businesses on the move, looking for contacts, directions, product comparisons, price checks and full-on purchases.
But handheld touch-screen devices bring different priorities for their users, and different requirements of their design. Here are five things to keep in mind as your site goes mobile:
Don't just shrink your existing site
Remember that a mobile web app isn't simply a regular website, scaled down to one-fifth of its desktop size. Think about design in two ways: the visual arrangement of elements on a single page, and the way users move through your site, from page to page, until they either get what they want (perhaps information, or, better still, a purchase) – or give up in frustration.
Prioritize and simplify
Think about what your customers will be doing when they access your mobile website from a handset. Odds are, they'll be on the go – in a parking lot, on the sidewalk, or even in a store aisle – and faced with all kinds of real-world distractions. Their attention will be easily diverted from your site, and they'll be easily dissuaded by small frustrations.
So keep it simple. Put the most important information front and centre, and make sure that everything on a mobile web page absolutely needs to be there. Do everything you can to reduce the "clicks to commerce" – the number of individual screen taps required to get the user from the first page they see to a successful transaction of goods or information. (One way to do this is by not linking users to your homepage. If they arrive at your site from targeted e-mail and text messages, send them straight to the checkout for the item they're looking for.)
Keep navigation to a minimum
When you look at a desktop website on a small handheld, the experience can be a bit like over a newspaper with a magnifying glass: panning left to right as well as up and down, hunting for the text you're looking for. When planning a mobile website, keep to one column, so the user only has to scroll in one dimension: up and down. Remember that fingers are blunter instruments than mouse pointers; to make the site easy to use, make your navigation bigger and easy-to-touch.
Similarly, keep the amount of page-to-page navigation to a minimum. Where you can, take full advantage of modern Web technology to allow users to interact with your site without having to load a fresh page. (Older websites still require users to load a new Web page when, for example, they look through search results, or check an item's availability.)
Keep an eye on forms
One of the most fiddly, frustrating things to do on a smartphone is to enter text into forms, especially if the phone is slow, fields are tiny, and there are a dozen of them. (It only gets worse if mistyping text into one field yields an error, which makes the user start from scratch.) Reducing the number of form fields is a good idea on any website, but in the mobile world, it's absolutely critical.
Forms are still a fact of life when it comes to e-commerce, since many shopping sites still ask users for credit card numbers. This is an area of friction that electronic payment providers and developers of "digital wallets" and PayPal-like services are targeting. So, when considering a payment solution for a mobile shopping site, pay attention to the number of form fields it asks the user to tangle with.
Remember that all not all mobile devices are really mobile
The word "mobile" is going through a bit of an identity crisis right now: The term gets applied to anything that's smaller than a laptop computer, but when you think about it, an iPad, a smartphone and the mid-sized seven-inch tablets that fall between them are all very different creatures. Not only does size matter, but tablets are unlikely to be used in the same way as a smartphones. You won't see many people comparison-shopping on their iPads at the mall, for instance.
So when you're planning a mobile website, focus on the devices that will actually be used when customers will be mobile, as opposed to cradling a tablet on the couch.
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