Mobile Devices and Site Design

Peter Wilkerson

by Peter Wilkerson , Search & Discovery Practice Area Manager

Companies are capitalizing on the dramatic upswing of the use of iPhones(r), iPads(r), Andriod(r) phones, smart phones and other mobile devices. IBM has recently updated their portal development tool IBM Web Experience Factory (previously IBM WebSphere Portlet Factory) to include a new set of mobile-optimized automation components to help developers construct mobile applications.

While some companies are depending on the ability of mobile devices to zoom in and out on their website, the companies making the biggest inroads are taking a more proactive approach.

In a nutshell this means that they are keeping the following points in mind:

* Communicating within the context of user mobility
Smart phone users are often not sitting at a desk focusing only on their phone. They are walking. They are talking. They might be talking on the phone while looking for information to answer their customer’s questions. They are likely to have short attention spans as they hail a taxi, board a flight, order lunch, or avoid being run over by somebody else talking on their cell phone.

* Mobile devices can report data as well as consume data
If the user chooses (privacy is important), a smart phone can relay significant contextual data about their location and the time of day. You’ve probably already seen examples of how restaurants, theaters, hotels and the like make use of this information. This information can also be used to identify nearby colleagues and customers.

* Choosing to Mobilize rather than Miniaturize
As I mentioned earlier some sites are depending on zoom in/zoom out functions to view websites. But really — who wants to zoom into a page with multiple portlets and have to move around a page to piece together what they need to know? iPad(r) users don’t have it so bad because of the size of their screens. The rest of us aren’t so lucky. Additionally, choosing to design for mobile doesn’t necessarily mean breaking all the pieces of a page into their own separate pages. You have to get to those pieces and guiding users intelligently to those pieces can be the difference between a successful or unsuccessful site.

* Prioritize content
One way to get users to the right pieces is to prioritize content. It’s not important to have everything. What is important is make the right things accessible. One of the first things to keep in mind is this question: Who is the customer of your mobile site? The more you understand who your customer is, what his needs are, what decisions she is responsible for making, what tasks need to be completed — the more you can make sure you are getting the right information in front of your customer.

Once you know who your customer is, you can decide how you want to build the paths for that person to follow to get to the info. Two common patterns are: Navigational and Search patterns

A site using the Navigational Model (in a mobile context) often has a hierarchical structure of topics which a user selects to navigate, much like navigation on a web page except a mobile setting may have only two or three tabs with a limited set of choices underneath. This model tends to work well when you are not supporting many different types of users and when the information is only a couple of clicks away.

However, we live in the age of data sprawl. In an enterprise setting there might be many, many different users to be supported and data is never only a couple of clicks away.

A mobile site using a Search Model will often have a search bar near the top along with a list of top categories. On some sites if you select a category you start down a path very similar to the Navigational Model. In other cases, your selection is entered as a search filter and the user sees a list of documents and can refine their search further with various choices. What you don’t often see is a more advanced search page that you find on websites. There just isn’t the screen real estate to support it.

There is a third model that would be useful for enterprise portals. For now I am calling it “Community Context-Driven Search.” The idea is not new but I have not seen it be applied to mobile devices. Every employee of a company can be described in terms of one more “communities of users.” The basic concept is that the search behaviors of communities of users are tracked. Two pieces of information would be tracked: a) Popular documents based on user ratings and b) the repositories in which popular documents are found. There would also be a mechanism for administrators to assign popular documents and repositories to different user groups based on input from subject matter experts.

This is how I see it working in a mobile context: A user would see a search bar along the top with a list of user communities below. They could enter a search term and get the “world” or they could select a user community. (If authentication is required for access to a site, users could be assigned a user community.) The result is that they would see documents relevant for the type of work they do based on the input of other users and subject matter experts.

In other words, they would get to the information needed quicker and more dependably. If you are on a phone call, looking for information to answer a client’s questions that could be the difference between closing a deal or losing it.

Now seems like a good time to repeat my tag line: “Search IS the Portal.”

In a time when mobile devices are taking off search is an obvious choice for solving the problem of how to get users to the right data quickly.

What do you see as your biggest needs for designing a mobile site? Email me at and let me know. Your feedback, thoughts, and questions will inspire me to write more.

Oh, and by the way, you can also contact me at the same email if you would like to have a more in-depth discussion about some of the challenges for designing a mobile site’s flow for your company.

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