Designing for mobile

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I have been hearing that mobile as a first-class content consumption device is “right around the corner” for around 12 years. At first, I was really excited by the prospect. Then, over time, I started to become skeptical and ignored the prophesies. Part of the problem was that I was always on the laggard end of phone gadgetry. Then a few years ago I got my first iPhone and my attitude started to change. I was actually using the web on my phone! It often sucked but that was OK because I was on the bleeding edge and we bleeding edgers can handle little inconveniences. Now all of the sudden, however, the mobile web is truly ubiquitous. Everyone has a smart phone — even people who “don’t do technology.”

Some of you reading this are probably wondering why I am writing on such an obvious topic. The analysts have been talking about this trend for years. Well, I am writing this because despite all the prediction this trend is still taking us by surprise in various ways.

A publishing client of mine recently told me that they are getting 20% of their traffic from mobile devices — 20%!. People are still talking about supporting IE 6 and 7. Together, those browsers make up less than half of that. In fact, all of IE makes up just 26% of overall web traffic. My client also shared with me two other interesting facts. First, email subscriptions are bigger than ever for them. Remember when people were predicting the end of email? Those folks were not thinking about mobile. The fact is, email is still mobile’s killer app. Every baby boomer with a blackberry gets email to his hip-holster. Email is the primary entry point for my client’s mobile traffic.

The second point he made was around advertising. Selling advertising on mobile is a challenge — not because the banner ads are so small (which is what I was thinking) but, because most advertiser websites are not mobile optimized, click-throughs are embarrassing for the advertisers. The customers who are clicking through are not just the tech savvy people who have the skills to accommodate some glitches. These people just see “broken” and move on. This creates an interesting dynamic that is similar to the early days of the web when web publishers needed their advertisers to build nice looking websites to get online advertising revenue.

I think most web teams are like me. We have been hearing about mobile forever. We had plenty of time to prepare but still we are caught off guard. We may have over-invested too early and were hesitant to get burned again. But now companies know they are behind. They are trying to catch up throwing cash into flashy apps. However, maybe money would be better spent on less sexy technologies like email subscriptions and mobile-optimization of their various websites. That would sure go a long way.