Mobile is certainly the big craze at the moment in the web industry. With the introduction of mobile devices such as the iPhone, iPad, and various other smart phones and tablets, the demand for websites to be ‘mobile friendly’ has never been greater. The purpose of this article is to highlight the impact mobile devices have had on web design in recent years. The article looks at various aspects such as best practices, challenges and design trends as well as taking a look at what may lie ahead for the future of mobile web design.
Motorola launched the world’s first commercially available mobile telephone, the DynaTAC 8000X, in 1983. Despite initially being affordable only to a privileged few and, by today’s standards, little about the device actually lending itself to mobility – not least its unwieldy brick-like size and weight – the Motorola 8000X nevertheless represented a major world-changing advance in the way we communicate.
In the 30 years or so since the 8000X went on sale, much has changed. For a start, the definition of the term ‘mobile technology’ has expanded beyond the scope of the telephone to include an evermore-diverse and sophisticated array of devices ranging from tablet PCs to eBook readers to so-called smart phones. Alongside other impressive capabilities such as allowing users to take and share high-definition photographs, read books, ascertain ones location down to a few metre’s, play movies and music and, even access the internet, that of making and receiving calls today seems a somewhat insignificant, easily overlooked feature of what now essentially amount to small, albeit ferociously powerful, personal computers.
The personal computer that has dominated our lives up until now has been, without doubt, the desktop computer, the experience of accessing the Internet on a mobile device having traditionally been fraught with difficulties and, more often than not, one characterised by intense disappointment. Yet with the help of advances in mobile hardware as well as software, the increasing availability of wireless, 3G and even 4G high-speed Internet, not to mention increased awareness and cooperation on behalf of designers and developers themselves, things are beginning to change fast with mobile devices now emerging as serious contenders to the desktop computer.
In 2009, Goldman Sachs economist, Mary Meek, predicted that over the following five years more users would begin to connect to the Internet through a mobile device than on a desktop computer. As of 2012, there are already more smart phones being sold worldwide than desktops with Gartner’s, one of the world’s leading IT research companies, predicting that mobiles will, ahead of schedule, surpass personal computers as the most common means of accessing the web. Meek has argued that the world is currently in the midst of its fifth major technology cycle of the past half century, the Mobile Internet Era – the four prior to it being the mainframe era of the 1950s and 60s, the mini-computer era of the 1970s, the desktop computer era of the 1980s and the desktop internet era of the 1990s and 2000s. If this cycle is as big as its four predecessors – and the sheer numbers involved suggest it will be even bigger – then those able to rise to the challenge of providing what users want, when they want it, will be more than compensated for their efforts.
The problem is that, until recently, few businesses, designers and developers have been able to fully grasp the importance of what is happening, many of them choosing to ignore the medium entirely. Designing for mobile devices presents its own unique challenges separate from those encountered when designing for the desktop, not least of all that of having to contend with a smaller screen.
Nevertheless, in the words of mobile Internet design expert, Luke Wroblewski, “Mobile, if it happened at all, has been a port of the desktop version that was conceived of, designed and built before anyone even considered the mobile experience.” Additional problems arise when considering the sobering fact that the vast majority of users do not yet own devices as feature-rich and technically competent as the iPhone 4S, which, like the 8000X back in the eighties, today still remains predominantly the preserve of the relatively wealthy.
Yet from a business perspective, it is hugely important to try and establish a strategy aimed at satisfying the demands of all elements of this increasingly important, growing target market, not just a privileged few. As many key players in the industry have already said, those involved in coming up with such strategies will, ultimately, have to start to do this by reversing the current trend of focusing on the desktop and begin designing for the mobile first.