There is an interesting debate going on in the world of mobile Web development: does mobile optimization mean you should serve modified content in addition to a mobile-friendly design?
Some online marketers and Web developers believe in device agnosticism, where not only the content of the mobile and desktop websites are the same, but even the pages that are rendered are identical. Meaning, they deliver the exact same HTML page (and content) in a slightly different way. These groups of Web publishers are huge fans of a movement called responsive Web design where the design of the website changes solely based on the width of the device (or browser) viewing the page. I honestly believe this is brilliant, and is a fantastic approach to delivering the same content on all devices in a manor that befits the user based on the screen they’re using.
Go ahead and try it out: open this website and resize your browser window. The smaller it gets, the more they condense the layout. No matter the width, it always looks just right.
While responsive design is cool, it’s not the only method of serving mobile optimized experiences with identical content. Another approach is to detect the user agent or try to discern exactly what browser the visitor is using. There are many ways of doing this. This method let’s you discern what kind of screen it’s using and act accordingly.
On the other hand, I’ve had a number of conversations with people who want to completely modify and manipulate the content of mobile sites to “only give the users what they need.” While this seems noble, and can likely prevent the user from downloading large amounts of unnecessary data, the logic is flawed. You may not know exactly what your mobile visitors want – and as it would logically follow, what they don’t want. However, there are a couple of assumptions that you can make, such as:
- Mobile visitors are more likely than desktop visitors to be out-and-about.
- Mobile visitors more likely to have a slower internet connection.
Making these assumptions can be very helpful. While considering these two points from the perspective of a retail product you might want to:
- Make access to a “store locator” more prominent because they might literally be looking for the closest store to their current location.
- Optimize all of your graphics for quick and easy download by making good use of repeatable 1px graphics and CSS styles.
With these assumptions in place, you can give your meandering vistors a better experience. However, you can’t say for certain that they won’t want to consume all of the same content that the desktop visitors enjoy. Imagine the scenario where someone finds something interesting while on their laptop and tries to show it to people on a mobile device while out on the town. What if that content isn’t available on the mobile device?
I just had a similar run-in with this again today, not with missing content, but with incorrect content. At the time of publishing this, my hometown Portland Timbers are currently showing two completely different schedules on their desktop and mobile sites.
The desktop shows the upcoming 2012 schedule while mobile is still promoting the schedule from last year. As a season ticket holder, a 107ist, and a member of the Axe Society, my heart sank when I loaded up the mobile site and thought I had to wait until March 19th for the first home game. (I thought it was on the 27th of February.) After a few seconds it dawned on me that I was looking at the schedule from last year and relaxed a bit… but was confused and flustered. Why wouldn’t they update the schedule on the mobile site?
This is a perfect example where responsive Web design (or database-driven content) would have saved the day. There’d be no point to even consider the content of the mobile site, by default it would be the same.
In fairness, I have notified the Portland Timbers front desk about this issue.