March 14, 2012 Dial "M" for Mobile - The pros/cons of mobile sites, apps and responsive design
The Internet can be an amazing and useful resource, but the speed at which technology changes can be hard to keep up with.
If you need a mobile website, press 1. If you would like your website to be responsive, press 2. If you would like to develop a native app for the iPhone or Android, press 3. Press the * key at any time to give up and order some direct mail postcards instead.
Overwhelming, isn't it? The Internet can be an amazing and useful resource, but the speed at which technology changes can be hard to keep up with. The "mobile web" is the latest frontier to become socially expected as a leading method of communicating to your audience. While it's still a relatively new marketplace, the ever-increasing attention given to smartphones, tablets and other portable devices with access to the Internet means that it is becoming harder and harder to predict the environment in which your audience will be receiving your information.
While the mobile web is probably not unfamiliar territory to those of you with smartphones, iPads or eReaders, the prospect of creating content for those devices and their audiences may still be a new idea for you or your organization. How do you know what to tackle first? What's worth your time, money and attention?
Let me quickly (okay, too late for that) define some terminology, and compare some of the most popular solutions for engaging the mobile viewer.
Most often, a mobile website is a standalone, slimmed-down version of your full "desktop" site. While the content is often similar, you may decide to limit how much information is presented specifically for a mobile device. You may also decide to visually design a cleaner version of your site for display on a smaller screen. Typically, a mobile site will prominently cater to an anticipated call to action, the most interactive function of the site, or the most obvious content that a user will be able to quickly digest.
Benefits: Creating a mobile site should force you to evaluate what information is most important to, or most often requested by, your audience. Streamlining your site to be quickly glanceable and intentionally interactive are crucial for communicating to an audience that will likely have less time to spend on your site and less screen real estate to view it with.
Challenges: It can be very difficult to anticipate which portions of your message are MOST important to the many people viewing your website. Additionally, if your mobile site has different content than your full site, you're creating more work for yourself to maintain multiple versions. Finally, one of the most difficult challenges to creating a mobile site is deciding which devices you'll test for or support. Developers of desktop websites have typically designed for an average monitor size, and anticipated support for three or four popular browsers on two popular operating systems. Mobile websites have many more possibilities to consider, because of the vast difference in technologies and screen sizes of smartphones, tablets and other Internet-capable devices.
With the almost universal popularity of the iPhone and the more recent Android phones, it seems like everyone wants a mobile application (commonly known as an app) lately. But what exactly IS an app, and how is it different from a mobile website? This helpful article from smallbiztrends.com defines an app as "a software application [or] program that you use online or on mobile devices."
According to Apple's App Store, there are over 500,000 apps for the iPhone alone, with uses from tracking your calorie intake to playing games to updating your Twitter feed.
But what purpose can an app serve for a church or organization?
Benefits: By publishing your content to the App Store (or Android Marketplace), you're expanding your potential audience and engaging with an ever-growing mobile population. A good app should extend the reach of your message or ministry by providing useful, easily-accessible content for those who want to receive it through this medium.
Challenges: Typically, an app will meet a very specific need, presenting a small slice of information or a simple function in a quick and easy way. For a church or organization, it may not make sense to invest in often-expensive development for such a narrow field. The variety of mobile platforms each require a unique type of programming (different than that used to create your website), which may mean coordinating with multiple vendors, paying additional hosting fees, and having yet another "mouth to feed" (it's another tool to keep updated and resourced).
"The control which designers know in the print medium, and often desire in the web medium, is simply a function of the limitation of the printed page. We should embrace the fact that the web doesn’t have the same constraints, and design for this flexibility."
This quote is from John Allsop, in an article he wrote about web design in April 2000. Over a decade later, Mr. Allsop's words are even more relevant. In the constantly shifting landscape of technology and media, the ways in which we communicate to each other and the tools we use to do so are always changing.
Partially in response to some of the challenges posed above, a new trend in website development has emerged, often labeled "responsive design."
According to Ethan Marcotte's article at A List Apart, "taking a responsive approach to design means moving beyond our reliance on designing for specific resolutions, devices or viewport widths."
In short, responsive design means that the team developing your website is using technology NOT to meet the requirements of any one specific platform, but to anticipate the wide array of possible interactions with your website, and building the site to "respond" to that interaction.
Benefits: You have one site to rule them all. The greatest advantage to responsive design is that you're creating content only once. The website itself, from your single domain name, will reposition, reformat, and sometimes reduce that content depending on the amount of space available on the user's device, whether it's a phone, tablet or desktop computer.
Challenges: While you're not building separate sites for various devices or platforms, it is still necessary to add programming to support various screen sizes. This takes more time for design and programming, and the "true" design of the site becomes much less concretely defined. I think we're still a long way from abandoning our laptops and desktop monitors, but the designer will need to create something that will be flexible enough to look and function well in many different arenas.
The technology keeps changing! We're striving to continue learning more. What trends are you considering? What tools are you pursuing?
Written by Ben Goshow
Lead Web Developer