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Why You Don’t Need A Mobile Specific Website

We all use the web in one form or another.  These days, we are using our mobile devices to browse the internet with greater and greater frequency.   With this increase in web traffic on mobile devices, companies are investing time, money and resources in developing mobile optimized user experiences on the web.

Jakob Nielsen, the Obi Wan Kenobi of web page usability, recently produced a report and summary on the Usability of Mobile Websites and Applications.  In his report summary, Mr. Nielsen makes the argument that a good mobile user experience requires “two designs, two sites, and cross-linking to make it all work.”  In other words, Mr. Nielsen recommends each site have two urls (ie. ww.mysite.com and www.m.mysite.com) – one for desktop and one for mobile.  In turn, the site will attempt to detect which device is being used and direct them to the appropriate url.

I can’t say I totally agree with Mr. Nielsen’s recommendation.  I have to admit, I haven’t read the 293 page report nor do I intend to spend  $298 to have access to it.  That being said, there appears to be flaws in some of his arguments.

First and foremost, Mr. Nielsen is absolutely right in regards to the necessity for an optimized mobile site to enhance user experience on the web.  When it comes to your run-of-the-mill pre-mobile optimized desktop site, there is clear usability depreciation in the mobile space.

Mr. Nielsen is also correct in his analysis that separate mobile sites intended specifically for particular mobile devices can often provide exceptional user experiences.  There are a variety of exquisite examples of mobile specific sites including the mobile sites of Jet Blue, Gatorade, Comcast, & Coke.  The user can feel the attention to detail in the mobile space.  It just ‘feels’ right.  Often, these sites are considered mobile web apps due to the similarity in user experience to a native application (purchased at the Apple AppStore or the Android Market).

Okay, we can totally agree on these two points.

Now what doesn’t fit?  Well, there are a plethora of websites operating in-between the realms of desktop specific & mobile specific.   Additionally, the process of device detection and redirecting to a specific ‘mobile’ url poses many challenges (only to become more difficult).

There are many websites that optimize for both the desktop space and the mobile space with one url (www.mysite.com).  This development style, often referred to as responsive web design, is gaining traction across the web.  (Okay. Yes, you can still have two sites as stated above and have them be responsive, but we don’t need to get into that right now).

What this means is that a site can be designed and developed to change its appearance and user experience on the fly – depending on the device being used.  In many circumstances, this design method works flawlessly without the need for a separate dedicated mobile url.

There are many quality examples of the effectiveness of responsive design including www.bostonglobe.com, www.smashingmagazine.com, www.us.illyissimo.comwww.foodsense.is, and www.sony.com. If you haven’t already, open these websites on different devices and screen sizes.  These sites are all built with a single url and use media queries, javascript and css to morph the design to fit a particular screen.

The challenge facing device detection primarily lies in the ever growing and diverse selection of devices available.  It would be fine if everyone used the same phone, or even if there were only half a dozen of similar size and capabilities.  What about tablets?  Do you device detect a tablet for the mobile site or the desktop site?  What about large phones / small tablets?  More and more, we will be viewing sites on our HDTV’s.  How do we treat these screens?  Desktop or mobile?

The three images by Brad Frost on this link help articulate the screen evolution. http://bradfrostweb.com/blog/notes/this-is-the-web/

I can’t imagine any company interested in spending the time and money required to develop separate sites and user experiences for all the varying screens being used (not to mention content & database management).   It just doesn’t make sense.

This responsive design philosophy is gaining momentum in the web development community for a variety of obvious reasons.  It provides the potential for a great tailored user experience on any device.  It is often considerably cheaper when compared to the development of a mobile specific site.  It doesn’t require separate content or database management across a variety of urls.  It is easier to make design and brand changes across the site.  It is scalable and able to evolve as technology changes.

There are some challenges with this design philosophy including image resizing, unnecessary file downloads & css compliance issues.  However, there are often ways to work with these issues.  Additionally, don’t be surprised if the W3C (the gate keepers of the code) & browsers evolve to better handle responsive design capabilities in the near future.

Mr. Nielsen is correct in some of his analysis, but his conclusion that the answer to the mobile web is a dedicated mobile site is simply off base.  I have no doubt he studied a ton of websites.  If his study included only desktop sites and dedicated mobile sites, his results are totally accurate yet completely void of a critical sample group.  Mobile dedicated sites can produce outstanding user experiences on specific devices.  Responsive sites can also produce outstanding user experiences, but across all devices.

So, before you go out and invest in developing your mobile specific url, take a look at converting your existing site into a responsive one.  There is a good chance it is your best choice in the digital evolution of your brand.