The Trade-Offs of Adapting Your Website for Mobile Users

Posted by Dave Curry on June 26, 2012

By Dave Curry

I’m probably dating myself when I say that I remember the debut of the “Shimmer” parody commercial on Saturday Night Live and that I was old enough at the time to think it was funny. In the classic skit, a husband and wife argue about whether a product called Shimmer is a floor wax or a dessert topping — until a pitchman informs them that it’s both. Decades later, another SNL parody struck the same note with the Enigma, a car engineered by two different design teams. The sham commercial simultaneously touted the Enigma to be the safest vehicle on the road and also to be so thrilling as to shatter on impact, hurling passengers up to 300 feet.

In these parodies, the comedy comes from the surprise of cognitive dissonance. We are accustomed to automobile makers emphasizing the safety of their cars in their advertising, so it’s funny to see a parody immediately follow this predictable pitch by superimposing the words “Very Dangerous” on an engineering diagram showing the post-collision ballistic trajectory of a passenger. Likewise, we can’t imagine how an effective floor wax and a tasty dessert topping could come from a single spray can. Logic and experience tell us that such things don’t go together, so the claim that they do comes across as patently ludicrous and therefore funny.

Designing Your Site to be Mobile-Friendly

Hopefully, you’ve read my previous posts and are convinced of the need for your website to be mobile-friendly. If you’ve done any research on this or have talked to a web designer recently, you have probably encountered the term “responsive web design”. Responsive Web Design uses a combination of recent web standards and flexible layouts to allow a website to adapt automatically to both desktop and mobile  browsers. The idea is to have a single source of content, but to lay it out dynamically for optimal readability and navigation based on the display size and capabilities of the user’s device.

At first glance, this approach seems to offer compelling advantages. Your users get mobile-friendly access to your site content. You save the costs of designing and maintaining separate desktop and mobile websites. This win-win scenario is so attractive that Responsive Web Design has become a top web design trend in the short time since the term was first coined in 2010.

So why does the Shimmer commercial play in my head every time I hear the term?

Part of this comes from the distinction I discussed in my last post between a mobile-friendly website and a mobile app. Because it is possible, even advisable, to use web technologies to develop mobile apps these days, it is tempting to employ Responsive Web Design to broaden the reach of the application.

However, users have different expectations of an application than of a website. They expect the user interface of an application to follow the conventions of the platform. Unlike in comedy, where surprise produces delight, when a user interface surprises us our reaction is usually not delight. It’s generally annoyance. The differences between the conventions of desktop user interface and those of a mobile user interface are so profound that the misapplication of responsive design to mobile apps is almost guaranteed to annoy your users.

Optimizing for Mobile vs. Desktop Browsing

So what about websites then? Recall that the value proposition of Responsive Web Design is that it allows a site to use a single source of content to serve different platforms. But this presupposes that users want the same content when they browse the web from mobile devices as when they browse from a desktop or laptop. Analysis of search terms and interaction patterns indicates that often they don’t.

Consider the case of a local business such as a restaurant. When users access a restaurant’s website from a mobile device browser, they generally seek different information than they do when browsing from the desktop. Most probably, a mobile user’s goal will be to obtain location, type of cuisine, and hours of operation whereas a desktop user’s goal might be to read a description of the restaurant’s atmosphere or to download a print-format version of the menu.

Responsive Web Design technique can reformat a website’s home page and navigation links to adapt to a mobile user’s browser, but it can’t optimize the content itself for both the mobile and desktop browser use-cases. That’s why a local business that hopes to achieve a competitive advantage by marketing to mobile users is better advised to create a separate, mobile-optimized web-site with content and interaction architecture designed from the ground up for the mobile use-case.

This principle holds true for other types of businesses as well. This includes advisor practices that place a strong emphasis on personal contact (remote office) or local presence (branch office). If you’re in doubt, you could do worse than to look at your website’s analytics to see whether users seem to be looking for different information when they access your site from mobile browsers than when they use desktop browsers.

Optimization always requires trade-offs. Economy or performance. Death-proof or thrill-seeking. Dessert topping or floor wax. As an advisor, only you can set the strategy to evolve your business. So only you can decide how important the mobile web is to your marketing efforts. But if you determine that it’s crucial, I would urge you to consider whether your customers might have different goals when they access your website from a mobile device before you go along with the responsive design trend. Otherwise, you could end up with something just as silly as Shimmer — except that no one would be laughing.

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