Designing Mobile Experiences
POSTED : January 20, 2011

We’re not in Kansas anymore

Today’s mobile landscape is an ever-evolving jungle of devices, platforms, and standards, with competing and overlapping features and capabilities. For the customer, this means unprecedented choice and opportunity for delight and distraction. For organizations serving mobile customers, it means both new challenges and new opportunities.

A critical step in an organization’s definition of their mobile strategy is carefully-considered alignment with its overall business objectives and core digital strategy. Historically, mobile initiatives have been treated by organizations as a novelty, an afterthought, or both. This has often resulted in their relegation to “phase 2” of digital strategy roadmaps, leading to disjointed, siloed, or tacked-on mobile initiatives, under-served users, and missed opportunities for customer engagement.

Mobile users are a special breed

Taking affirmative steps to increase the cohesion between mobile and traditional digital efforts can yield significant competitive advantages, and capture customer interactions that would otherwise fall through the cracks. Deliberately meeting users in their individual context — defined by their location, intent, and device capabilities — can increase the value of each customer touchpoint. Recognizing that mobile customers are likely in a different, and specifically identifiable, place in the acquisition cycle than desktop site visitors can open up a host of engagement opportunities.

With crisp execution, these opportunities facilitate experiences of joyous serendipity for customers.

While intent can be difficult (though not impossible) to infer, user location is, by and large, available to you whether you’re targeting mobile web or native-app users. The customer that is physically on their way to your location (or already there!) is of a measurably different value to you, in an immediate sense, than one who is sitting at home, possibly evaluating you against a number of competitors. Empowering your customers to use their location and intent to their advantage in their interactions with you ends up serving both of you. The more immediately useful you can be to your customers, and the less of their time you take up in the process, the better it is for both of you in the long run.

Examples of this type of location-based customer experience optimization are rolling out more and more as businesses compete for the mobile consumer. One shining example of this is Zipcar (whose iPhone app was designed by our partners at Small Society). With near-ubiquitous car availability in the markets they serve, and relatively short-term (often immediate) reservation availability, their service would be phenomenally convenient even without a mobile component. However, their mobile app — which effectively enables you to find and requisition a car a few steps from you at a moment’s notice — pushes the experience into world-changing territory. Rule of thumb: if it feels like the future, it’s likely a well-executed mobile strategy.

While divining users’ specific intentions can be fraught with peril and uncertainty, a few predictable behavior patterns have emerged in recent years that can help inform the design of mobile user experiences. In particular, mobile users tend to be more goal-driven and task-focused, having shorter session lengths than their desk-bound counterparts. This suggests that a strategy of getting to the point, and emphasizing utility over flash, can be appropriate for many organizations’ mobile initiatives. This can be achieved by re-orienting content to emphasize that which is geared more towards customer problem solving (store locators, reservation systems, order status utilities) while simultaneously downplaying marketing content that may be more appropriate in a classical interactive scenario.

In his recently-published book Tapworthy (which I strongly recommend), Josh Clark identifies three major classes of mobile user activity: “filling time” (staving off boredom on the bus ride, for example), “getting local” (searching for timely, location-relevant information), and “microtasking” (knocking out small bits of work or personal organization as time allows). As befits the medium, each of these classes of behavior is appropriate for activity on a relatively small device in an indeterminate-and-likely-to-be-interrupted span of time. While Clark’s book is focused on the design of native-platform iPhone apps, I believe these behavioral archetypes transcend platform boundaries, and are applicable to both native and mobile-web apps. Identifying specific use cases that fall into one of those categories, and aligning them with your existing business goals, can help take your mobile strategy to the next level. But getting there can take time and hard work.

Relax: The Emerald City wasn’t built in a day

For many organizations, developing a cohesive mobile strategy can seem daunting. Recognizing mobile strategy as existing on a continuum can help soften this challenge somewhat, breaking it down into manageable steps. Roughly speaking, an organization’s mobile strategy will tend to fall somewhere along this progression:

Level 0*: Do nothing and hope for the best

These brands have steered clear of the mobile jungle altogether. Their website may look passable on an iPhone or Android device, but everyone else is probably out of luck, and they’ve made no deliberate effort to treat mobile users with care or special treatment. Mobile visitors to these types of sites are typically lost immediately. Sadly, even today, many brands fall into this category.

Level 1: Do no harm

In an attempt to, at minimum, support their brand among mobile visitors, the organization may have made some attempt to optimize the display of their site for mobile visitors. Most sites that have had any mobile attention at all fall into this category, and while they tend to be usable in the majority of modern smartphone browsers, they often don’t degrade to older or less sophisticated phones, and usually don’t provide any content re-emphasis or mobile-specific experience.

Level 2: Streamline and focus

These brands provide utilities that attempt to match their desktop site, but optimize their placement, content, and interface for mobile users’ focus and time constraints. Airlines providing utilities like day-of-flight check-in, flight status, etc, front-and-center in their mobile websites (and sometimes in relatively straightforward native-platform apps) fall into this category.

Level 3: Surprise and delight

These brands provide features that differentiate the mobile experience from the desktop experience — typically with regard to location, time, identity or some other bit of context. A reservation system that directs you to the nearest location to you that has current availability is a good example of this type of user experience.

(*I’m starting at zero, like a good programmer. Of course.)

Welcome to the jungle

Tactically, the mobile development space is no less in flux than it is strategically. Keeping current with the peculiarities of various mobile browsers can make developers downright wistful for the days of Netscape-Internet Explorer conflicts, and native platforms are deep and specialized enough to require many developers to pick a single platform. For organizations planning a mobile deployment, platform selection can be a very tricky business. Fortunately, there are some tools out there that can help.

First off, in order to know where you’re going, it helps to know where you are. The mobile analytics marketplace has seen a boom in the past couple of years, with many new companies dedicated to measurement and optimization of various types of mobile initiatives appearing. If you’re starting with a traditional or otherwise non-mobile-optimized website, you may want to consider utilizing a service like Percent to establish a baseline snapshot of the devices visiting your site. Of course, your traffic may be skewed by the suitability of your current offering to various devices, but that can be inferred and filtered against, somewhat, by bounce rates among device types.

Secondly, “going native” doesn’t necessarily have to involve investing heavily in one platform or another, at least for a first release (as long as your functionality doesn’t require access to device capabilities like the camera or accelerometer). Thanks to utilities like TitaniumPhoneGap, and rhoMobile, wrapping a web app in a native app “skin” can be a viable alternative to native SDK development. If your feature set is relatively simple and your key native-platform goal is mere app store presence, this might not be a bad approach.

Further, mobile browsers have come a long way, and with the addition of features like persistent local storage and location awareness, and libraries like jQuery, creating an “app” experience via the web (that works across device platforms!) is becoming a more and more viable alternative. Release cycles for mobile web apps can also be far tighter without the added steps involved in app store distribution. Lastly, keeping up with newly-evolving form factors like tablets is somewhat easier with a common browser layer as the output target, rather than entirely new neighborhoods of various SDKs to work through.

So, while they differ in specifics of execution and delivery, I believe that both native and mobile-web apps can support similar strategic goals. The decision to develop one or the other (or more often, both) should generally be resolved based on tactical considerations — like device capabilities required to support certain features and device adoption rates among your target customer base.

At the end of the day, users choosing to engage with a brand’s digital presence should be respected equally regardless of platform. The customer journey dictates the experience to be provided, and this journey is naturally more complicated in a mobile setting. Fortunately, “more complicated” equates to “more interesting”. This provides unprecedented opportunity.

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