The mobile Internet is fast becoming mainstream. One reason is clearly the growing prevalence of high-end handsets that are less telephones than they are entertainment centers, fashion statements, and content-consumption vehicles. And every bit as important as the devices are the all-you-can-eat data plans that come with them. These two factors alone — the astonishing popularity of handsets such as the iPhone, the BlackBerry Storm, and the G1, and the end of stifling limits on data consumption — explain much of the growth in mobile content consumption; but let’s not forget the other key dimension, which is the content itself.
We are in the midst of a generational shift in mobile content services. The first generation was characterized by flat, lowest-common-denominator designs, limited content, and even more limited functionality. The new generation is far richer and more interactive, more social, and more personal. One-dimensional WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) sites are giving way to dynamic content services that are rich in video and other media content and far more visually impactful than their predecessors. These factors, too, are helping to draw real audiences to the mobile Web for the first time ever.
This is an important time, not just for established content providers, but for businesses of all kinds to consider mobile and ensure that they are positioned to participate as the mobile Web takes hold as a major media platform. It is also a time when a great deal is up for grabs and incumbents in the world’s desktop and traditional media may cede ground to new and innovative players in the mobile space.
But what are the key things to consider as one plans either a new or an improved mobile Internet presence? What should one look for in a mobile content platform? And what features do you need to ensure your place among a new generation of mobile sites and services?
Design With the Handset in Mind
It is no longer enough to design for the lowest common denominator. Users of high-end devices demand sites that take advantage of their handset capabilities. Steer clear of providers who offer a one-size-fits-all approach and look for those who offer an adaptive user interface that looks great on high-end phones without leaving lower-end devices out in the cold. Don’t feel that you have to sacrifice richness, depth, or visual appeal just to keep your pages lightweight and ensure that they load quickly on slow networks. A good user interface designer — one who really understands mobile — will know how to build a site that pops visually and loads quickly at the same time.
That said, the “less is more” principle still holds in designing for the mobile Web. Look for simple, clean designs that present the user with relatively few navigation choices to process at any one time. A good rule of thumb is that the mobile user should never be confronted with more than seven or eight links or buttons to choose from at any one time. Of course, it is always wise to remember the basics: Avoid clutter, use simple backgrounds, and use contrasting colors and large fonts for text. Even when designing for advanced phones, don’t depend on the device’s pinch and zoom features. Keep the visual elements of the page large and clear enough to view and navigate with having to zoom.
Content Selection and Organization
Aesthetic design is important, but perhaps even more important is how the content is winnowed down, organized, and presented to the mobile user. Selecting and refining content for mobile and focusing on what makes the most sense for mobile consumption is essential, as is careful attention to the navigation structure of your site. Your mobile site can be much more than a pale shadow of your desktop site, but it does have to be streamlined and well structured.
Identifying key content from the most-visited pages on your desktop site is usually a good place to begin. It can also be helpful to examine the typical click-path your audience takes through your desktop site. Your mobile site should be structured around the most prevalent and familiar ways by which your existing user base navigates through your site. On the desktop, it may be desirable to offer many paths to the same content. In mobile, it is usually best to focus on developing a single, intuitive path and supplementing this with features such as site search and subject-based browsing. A good platform provider will not only supply features like these, but will also be able to provide support and insight on content selection and organization.
Beyond the Basics
For simple Web sites, focusing on mobile design, content and organization may be enough; but for those with richer content offerings, it is no longer necessary nor advisable to assume that a mobile Web site must be a stripped-down, feature-poor version of the desktop site. Rich media — video in particular — has arrived on the mobile Web. So have rich community and socialization features. Indeed, when it comes to features and capabilities, the goalposts have moved to such an extent over the past few months that even companies that have had established WAP sites for years are now scrambling to rethink their mobile sites lest they be left behind in the generation shift in mobile content services.
The overriding message here is, don’t sell yourself short on features. We are in the early days of a new era, but full-featured services will increasing become the rule rather than the exception in mobile, and it is essential not to make decisions now that will leave you lacking in the future.
- Snackability: Mobile users consume content in a more compressed and purpose-driven manner than desktop users. For this reason, making content “snackable” is an important aspect of repurposing media for mobile consumption. However, preparing rich media content for bite-sized browsing need not be the expensive and time-consuming process that it first seems. The right provider will be able to automate the process of making your media snackable and will also be able to provide an interface for mobile video consumption that is appropriate to the mobile media mode of consumption.
- Personalization: Another step sites can take to engage mobile users and facilitate the discovery and consumption of content is to add personalization to the mix. At its best, personalization functions on both implicit and explicit user preferences. Explicit preference information is typically gleaned from the profiles of registered users who have identified certain categories of content that are of interest to them. Implicit preferences are determined through inferences drawn by observing user behavior over time. As long as there is a bright line between anonymous and personally identifiable information and user privacy is stringently protected, personalization can provide a powerful means of enhancing the user experience.
- Integrated communities: Media companies benefit from harnessing the power of their own user communities, transforming content consumers into content distributors. This is no less true in the mobile environment than it is on the desktop. But mobile user communities should not be divorced from their desktop counterparts. It is important to select a mobile platform provider who is able to manage mobile-community features as integrated extensions of the desktop platform rather than operating in a separate, parallel universe.
- Measurement: The era of experimental mobile-marketing budgets is behind us. Detailed site analytics, advertising metrics and rich media usage statistics are now must-haves. Demand these features from your platform provider. They will be essential for demonstrating returns on your own investment in a mobile presence as well as supporting advertising as a means of monetizing your site.
- Quality assurance: One of the most challenging aspects of mobile site development is quality assurance. Indeed, testing across a broad spectrum of devices, operating systems and browsers is among the most significant value-adds a mobile platform provider brings, and the need to do so is perhaps the single greatest factor inhibiting a go-it-alone approach to mobile site development.
Going mobile is not what it was even just a year ago. Today, it is a far more exciting and worthwhile endeavor than it was before.
It is now possible, with the right mobile platform provider, to achieve a feature-rich, interactive, and visually impactful mobile presence that does service to your brand, extends your community of users onto a new platform, helps make inroads into new user groups and demographics, and above all positions you well in a rich media environment that is no longer a thing of the future but has, in fact, already arrived.
Jim Ricotta is president and CEO of Azuki Systems, a service provider for media companies to deliver and monetize rich, interactive mobile Web sites. Sam Harp is Azuki’s director of business development. Sam can be reached at [email protected].