Building Websites for Mobile is Very Important – A response to: “Time to Stop Building Mobile Websites”

(The following is a response to a guest blog post on Forbes.com titled “Time to Stop Building Mobile Websites“)

When I first read the headline of the Forbes guest post, I was puzzled. It’s akin to someone writing an article titled “The Titanic Never Sank.” It’s an inaccurate, sensationalist headline. The article also contained a fair amount of false information. The core message is good, but unfortunately the author made some extremely inaccurate claims when trying to prove his point. I’m going to address those points – both their fallacies and core facts.

Step 1 in building your mobile website is to determine your target audience

Focusing on mobile as a separate channel is a distraction that turns the platform into an either/or proposition that hurts results.

First off, it completely depends on the goal of the website. Many successful founders will even suggest some companies focus on mobile first and not even bother with a desktop presence. Secondly, some websites have functionality and flows that simply do not translate well to mobile. Third, it’s simply not feasible for larger websites to quickly rebuild from the ground up to offer a mobile presence via a responsive site. In the short term, providing a specific mobile version is suitable while the main site is overhauled. Claiming that not building a responsive site “hurts results” is an extreme overgeneralization that should simply be ignored.

The most important aspect of building a mobile website

“Mobile” as a separate marketing channel existed for about six months – somewhere back in 2009. It had an extremely short lifecycle because technology and user behavior caught up, waved a cheery hello and then raced right by.

I’ve been building mobile sites since 2001. I have no clue where the 2009 date comes from, but it has nothing to do with mobile sites not previously existing as a “separate marketing channel”.

The mobile and traditional Web separated initially because of slower processors, slower connection speeds and lousy displays. That distinction is disappearing – fast. [...] The only difference? Screen size. My phone still has a relatively small screen.

You need to think about form factor in your marketing, not mobile versus desktop.

That was true, back in 2001. As far as modern smartphones go, that hasn’t really been the case for years. There were methods to deal with slower processors, connections and screen sizes… all since at least 2001. In many cases, the displays on smartphones are higher quality than those on desktop computers (eg IPS vs TN panels.) Mobile devices clearly have smaller physical screens than most desktops or laptops.

However, the biggest distinction isn’t even touched on – usability. How a mobile device is used is vastly different than a desktop computer. The idea of “Think form factor, not mobility” is very misleading at best. Again, one has to look at the target for the site – will they be using the site on their smartphone while sitting at their desk? Most likely not. They will be using it as a mobile device. Their connection may not always be great, the lighting conditions may not be as controlled and the environment in which the site is used may be much more chaotic. Because of this, how data is passed and stored needs extra care. How much contrast you give a design is also important, as is font, graphic and button size to name a few. It’s not just about the size of the screen, it’s about how and where the site is used.

Mobile vs desktop websites

If you want me to cry, tell me you’re building a “mobile website” for your company. [...] No sane person builds a separate mobile site to deliver content or support e-commerce. You might create a separate checkout funnel. But a full-fledged mobile website can cause loads of painstaking effort, and at the end of the day it’s worthless.

The author just called Amazon.com worthless and Jeff Bezos insane. While Jeff may be insane, I tend to think it’s in a good way and there’s no way I can logically call Amazon “worthless”.

Mr. Lurie’s comments about when to build an app were pretty good, other than the “it’s a waste of effort” remark. Unfortunately, making assertions like “No sane person builds a separate mobile site to deliver content or support e-commerce” overshadows and discredits the rest of his message.

“Instead, build responsive designs”

This is a great idea in many cases. Again, it depends on the site’s function, it’s audience and many other factors. As far as generalizations go, it’s not too bad. Still, Mr. Lurie interjects fallacies.

“You maintain one content management/e-commerce infrastructure.”
“You deliver one set of content to one site.”
These can be done with a separate mobile site as well. Any good CMS or ecomm system will allow for multiple “themes” or “skins” to be applied based on the device that’s accessing the site. Any reasonably well-built custom framework should also allow for sharing content between themes.

“You support all mobile devices that include Web browsers.”
A core method of building a responsive site are called “Media Queries”. These were only introduced in CSS3. This became an official W3C recommendation on June 19, 2012. http://www.w3.org/TR/css3-mediaqueries/ Millions of mobile devices exist that don’t support this. If your target includes a large amount of these devices, a responsive site may pose big problems.

“It’s better for search engine optimization (SEO).”
Although Google recommends responsive sites, it’s not because there’s any impact on SEO. And reading the link he provided shows this. Not only that, but it also shows how to solve the issues he cites as reasons not to provide a dedicated mobile site. Finally on this point, just because there is a dedicated mobile site doesn’t mean it’s at a different URL or that it serves up different content.

How should you build your mobile website?

Know your audience. Know your goals. Know your technology. Know your user experience. Armed with that knowledge, often a single responsive site can be a good solution. Sometimes an app works better and sometimes a dedicated mobile site is the best solution.

I have built many dedicated mobile sites and I have also built responsive sites. Often with large existing sites that want to provide a better experience to mobile traffic, we’ve used the same database and framework but applied a mobile theme to the layout so that it works better on mobile devices. This has often proven to be far more cost effective than rebuilding the original site.

Another project I’m currently working on is a dedicated mobile site for a software as a service product. There are over a hundred thousand sites on this platform and millions of people use the sites. The administration for the service is full of complex forms, hundreds of editable fields, detailed wizards and a lot of other functionality that is simply painful on mobile. I’m rethinking the whole process to how, when, where and why the users use the site, in the context of mobile. It’s very important to not ignore the context of use. The site will be responsive, but primarily to target multiple mobile device sizes and pixel densities.

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