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Rethinking the Mobile Web

by Bryan Rieger, Stephanie Rieger
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A pragmatic look at creating an accessible and inclusive mobile experience.

Sometimes, 2010 really reminds me of 1995—that mystical time when the Web was just starting to take off. I remember sitting with a friend randomly typing the name of the largest or most innovative companies we could think of into Netscape, just to see if they maybe had a website. The mobile Web today is a bit like that. Every once in a while you Google something and poof… a mobile site comes up. Unlike 1995, however, finding a mobile site is only half as much fun. All too often, the content isn’t exactly what you were expecting. And more often than not, it’s formatted for some other device.

So that’s the user perspective, but how do designers and developers feel about the mobile Web?

For all the times users are perplexed by odd mobile experiences, I can guarantee developers, designers, and stakeholders are as well. Mobile browsers are pretty smart these days, so why not just serve the desktop site to everyone? But then again, there’s that ‘mobile context’ thing. So maybe it’s best to build a mobile site with mobile-specific functionality? That’s no fun though, because now we have two sites, or maybe three, or even more. How do you tell these devices apart anyhow? Is that what these new @media query things are for? And let’s be realistic: all we see on the subway are iPhones, so are users even browsing the Web on mobile at all?

The problem is that there is no single or correct answer to any of this, and there may not be for some time.

But what we do know after lots of testing and research is that millions of people are using the mobile Web on many devices with many screen sizes and using many browsers. Habits and patterns also vary dramatically around the world, which makes it even harder to figure out what to do. And current options such as device databases and user-agent sniffing are becoming less useful. There are simply too many devices out there to keep relying on huge white lists or seemingly random device groupings based on terminology that keeps changing (tablet, superphone, smartphone, featurephone, dumbphone… ?)

The presentation below is our attempt to provide some perspective on all this, and suggest techniques that address the wide range of users, devices, and browsers from the very start. This is by no means a solution to everyone’s problems and, to be honest, we’ve been completely blown away by the interest these ideas have received so far. From Berlin, to Seoul, to Nairobi, we’ve struck a chord with people who create and manage Web-based digital stuff, including developers, educators, publishers, and even librarians. It’s clear that many people want or need to support mobile but are uncertain how to do so.

So we’d love to hear from the UX community. Does the approach we recommend in the presentation, or any others you may be using, make sense to you? What tools, standards and resources are missing to address the problems you currently encounter when designing for the mobile Web?

post authorBryan Rieger

Bryan Rieger, Bryan (@bryanrieger) is a designer, writer and reluctant developer with a background in theatre design and classical animation. Bryan has worked across various media including print, broadcast, web and mobile, and with clients such as Apple, Microsoft, Nokia and the Symbian Foundation. Most days, Bryan can be found designing and prototyping a diverse range of experiences, and every once in a while, he can also be found organising a Mobile Design UK event in London.

post authorStephanie Rieger

Stephanie Rieger, Stephanie (@stephanierieger) is a designer and closet anthropologist with a passion for the many ways people interact with technology. With a diverse background, Stephanie's expertise lies in marrying design, technology and business goals to craft simple, elegant experiences. A compulsive researcher, Stephanie is always keen to discover and share insights on the mobile web and mobility trends in emerging economies.

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