Thursday, August 8, 2013

Do You Need a Mobile Version of Your Web Site?

Mobile Web SiteMore and more people are accessing the Internet using their mobile phones and tablets. So how do you make your Web site work effectively when accessed from mobile phones and tablets? Don't automatically assume you need to create a completely new Web site - or even a phone app - for your Web site. Those might not be the best options, as this cartoon from the XKCD site humorously points out (used with permission):


So what should you do? Broadly, there are three options - from easiest to hardest:

  1. Mobile-friendly Web site: Make sure your existing Web site works well when viewed on a mobile device.
  2. Mobile Web site: Build a separate Web site specially for use on mobile devices.
  3. Mobile app: Create a mobile app instead of a Web site.

1. Mobile-friendly Web site

A Web site is "mobile friendly" if it works when viewed on a mobile phone. It means you don't have to design and maintain a separate site or app; your main Web site just works.

This isn't as hard as it seems, unless your Web site uses fancy graphic design techniques or complex technology. But if it's designed well, according to the rules of good, solid Web design, it should work.

Here are some things that could "break" a Web site on mobile devices:

  • Flash: Your site won't work on iPhones, iPads and other Apple devices.
  • Certain kinds of drop-down menus: These won't always work on mobile devices.
  • A design that's too wide and can't be shrunk: This will be clumsy to use on a mobile device, especially if it involves horizontal scrolling.
  • Font too small: A small font is OK, as long as the user can enlarge it. But some sites don't allow this, and this will make the site difficult to read.
  • Buttons and links too small: Apart from being difficult to read, this can make them difficult to click.
  • Lots of graphics: Web sites load slower on mobile devices, so use fewer graphics and smaller graphics.

If you have a Web site already, simply load it on as many mobile phones and tablets as possible, and just try reading and clicking your way around as if you were a first-time visitor. If it works well, that's a good sign. It's not a 100% guarantee, because there are so many mobile devices now, and you can't possibly test all of them - but it's a good start.

Alternatively, if your Web site is built using Wordpress, you can install the WPtouch plug-in, which automatically shows mobile users a mobile version of your site (with all the graphics stripped out, and showing just the blog posts and essential pages you want). This is an easy solution, but be warned that it might strip out too much, and you might not like showing users such a bland Web site.

2. Mobile Web site

The next option is to create a second Web site, which has been designed specifically for use on mobile phones. The advantage of this approach is that you can create a trim, fast-loading mobile Web site that only offers the essential features; without constraining your main Web site in any way.

However, it does mean you now have to manage and maintain two Web sites. This increases your workload and expense, and increases the risk of the two sites being "out of step".

Another problem is that the mobile version is sometimes too limited, and is missing some essential features.

3. Mobile app

The third, and most sophisticated, option is to build an actual mobile app for the Apple iTunes Store and Google Play Store. If you've used apps on your phone, you know they can be more powerful than simple Web sites.

However, there are some disadvantages as well, and the biggest is that it's not a good substitute for your Web site. If your Web site doesn't load well on a mobile device, it's unlikely that somebody will think of going to the iTunes Store to download an app! It's more likely that they will just leave in frustration.

For this reason, most businesses don't have apps as a replacement for their Web site. If they do want an app that reflects part of their site, they will build a mobile Web site instead (the second option above), and use an app for doing something else related to their business.

If you really want to build an app for your business, contact an experienced app developer. For the iTunes Store in particular, it's better to use somebody who has done this already, because Apple is very picky about what it will allow for an app.