For the last couple of years, if you tried to look up a restaurant menu on your phone, you might get something like this:
Unfortunately, this is a lost sale to a potential customer who just wanted to order some takeout.
Computers, like the one sitting on your desktop, are built on a twenty-year history of web design and development, and if the web has been good at anything, backwards compatibility (i.e. the ability for new software to work well with very old websites) is maybe the big one1. Keyboards, mice, big monitors – these are things that have long been assumed when designing for the screen. Yet with the rise of mobile devices, users don’t have keyboards, don’t have mice, don’t have large monitors and don’t have Flash and other proprietary formats for games, video and other media. This is the biggest break with “legacy” websites we’ve ever seen.
Even more important than the technology, though, is the new question added to the long-asked “who are your users,” “where are your users?” And the answers can have a drastic impact on how a website is designed, implemented and used.
HTML5, which Apple is pushing to the forefront of the modern web, contains new options for geolocation2, or the ability to detect where a site visitor actually is. Other tools, such as Facebook’s recently launched Places or foursquare, offer services to sites who can work with that kind of data. Complementing these tools are new methods of optimising a site for mobile visitors, which can include screen design that works best on small monitors, changing the content sent to mobile devices and streamlining the navigational experience.
The challenge, which requires a combination of web technologies, strategic thinking and visual design, is to develop valid and useful user scenarios that can help determine how your visitors are going to use your site in different situations: at home, or under a dome; out the door, or in a store; in a box, or with a fox3. Over time, more and more of your users are going to access your site from a mobile device4, and they’re going to use it in different ways and need different things served out fast, fast, fast. Plus, the mobile audience has a different set of expectations around a website, and those include higher degrees of interaction, pushed content and social networking.
Ignoring the changes afoot is perilous. Returning to the example above, how many lost sales does it take before we’re looking at real money, and a lost sale today almost certainly means that visitor won’t even try coming back next week and the week after that.