I had the good chance of meeting up with friends in New York City last weekend; it’s been a long time since I’ve had the chance to explore the town. I used to live in Long Island, but that was more than 10 years ago.
Needless to say, I was making extensive use of my iPhone to get around, find restaurant recommendations, figure out where I was and where I was going, and generally make my life easier. I haven’t traveled extensively with the iPhone yet, but it is really a transformative experience.
What’s a mobile optimized website?
Apple has positioned the iPhone and Safari web browser as “fully web accessible”: no separate iPhone website is necessary to view and surf content. And, indeed, it’s likely the best browser of its type on such a small screen. Content in various blocks can be zoomed-in and zoomed-out with a simple double click, and it’s fairly easy to get around.
Having said that, it’s also pretty slow and, let’s face it, not optimal. The advertising space available to your desktop web browser is not the same on a portable device. Performance suffers, navigation suffers, and in general it’s not that easy.
Mobile optimized versions of websites are supposed to help with this problem. By trimming down navigation elements, images, and content to the bare minimum required, mobile site versions are supposed to be faster, easier to use, and to the point for the mobile user. We’ve been working on an iPhone optimized version of our own site [http://bit.ly/jqHUm], which is driven from the same content that runs our ‘desktop’ version. Great work.
What’s the usability challenge?
Overly helpful websites automatically push iPhone users to the mobile versions of their sites. But iPhones do not require a mobile optimized version : it may or may not be nice to have, but it’s certainly no requirement. So the first mantra of usabilitylet users choose what they’d likeis being violated here. In some cases, it’s impossible to click through to the full version of the site at all. So users are trapped in a mini mobile version of the site.
This is a particular problem when you consider inbound links from search engines.
Consider: I’d like to eat at a French restaurant in Chicago, and Google that up on my iPhone. I see that CitySearch offers a whole index of french restaurants:
Easy enough! But when a user clicks through on the CitySearch listing, what does she get?
The iPhone optimized version of the siteall fresh and ready for me to, again, specify my search criteria. This is a huge problem. It’s difficult enough to type in the small form field areas; moreover, the chance that I’ll find the content link that I wanted, that Google already found for me, is slim to none.
This happened to me probably 8 or 9 times over a long weekend. Flight status checks? Nope. Restaurant reviews? Nope. Show times on Broadway? Nope nope nope.
What should the mobile site rules be then?
If you offer a mobile version of your site, ensure users can opt out of it if they like.
A simple ‘full version’ link somewhere in a footer or header would suffice. Ensure users have the option to see what they’d like to see.
Ask – don’t require – if users would like to use your mobile site version.
Rather than using a default rule that directs all mobile-web-clients to the mobile version, consider offering a prestital page that gives users the option if they like. Also, keep in mind that the iPhone’s safari is significantly more advanced than other mobile platforms. An iPhone user has higher expectations of a mobile version of a site, and will feel jilted if you shut them off to the plain text, no color version.
Inbound URLs should map to mobile content versions of the same content.
This last item is particularly challenging for mobile sites that cater to iPhones, because what makes content transitions, swipes, and page flow so pleasant to look at also obscures URL paths. Regardless it’s got to be done. If a user is coming to your site based on a Google search result, they want the contentnot your blank, mobile version. AA.COM? CitySearch? Flightstats.com? I’m talking to you guys.
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