Mobile Web Design: Is It Worth It?

Apr 26 2010 by Mathew Carpenter | 44 Comments

Mobile Web Design: Is it Worth It?

The last decade has seen a remarkable level of attention occur online. Social networks have popped up, designed to connect people based on every possible interest and need; service-driven companies and process-based web applications have been developed to take the place of traditional software.

Finally, a growing number of web companies have done their best to ensure that web services—whether essential or not—are accessible virtually anywhere with an internet connection.

Of course, the success of mobile internet isn’t entirely down to the ambitions and good will of Web 2.0 companies. We have technology to thank for the prevalence of mobile internet today. If anyone out there remembers the ancient black-and-white (or black-and-green, if you prefer) internet once accessible on mobile phones, it’s unlikely that they’ll be thanking software developers alone for making mobile internet so accessible.

But there’s a growing focus on mobile internet that just isn’t justified, especially for profit-driven online companies and commercial web businesses.

Spurred on by the success of Facebook’s mobile platform, YouTube’s iPhone-friendly mobile application, and Twitter’s mobile popularity, a growing number of designers, site owners and entrepreneurs are beginning to believe that they need to make their web presence accessible by phone.

Is Your Website Aimed at Mobile Users?

Is Your Website Aimed at Mobile Users?

Some web applications are aimed at mobile users, but many aren’t. Facebook and Twitter have scored record growth in mobile users specifically because their platforms are geared towards what mobile devices do best: help people communicate.

In many ways, the popularity of social websites on the move is no surprise. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and hundreds of other social media websites ranging from ultra-niche to as general as possible are accessed by mobile users regularly.

Facebook reports that over 25 percent of their traffic comes from mobile users and that mobile users are more active than PC-based users.

For social companies with an expectation to earn money through general advertising, the thought of greater mobile traffic is appealing.

With Apple’s iAd platform looming on the horizon and Google’s own Adsense advertising network settling into mobile markets for two years, it appears that user-driven social websites have made the most of their deserved mobile popularity.

The problem, however, is that many online businesses and websites aren’t driven by more general page views, more activity, and more conversation.

When you look outside of the small sample offered by Silicon Valley startups—many of which, it’s worth nothing, are not yet profitable—you begin to see that most advertising-supported websites fare quite poorly when ported to a mobile platform.

Advertising Performance on Non-Social Mobile Websites

Advertising Performance on Non-Social Mobile Websites

Apple’s iAd demonstration was impressive. There’s no doubt that the company has a clear idea of just what it will take to dominate mobile advertising and marketing. And with their past technological successes backing the company, there’s even less doubt that Steve Jobs knows how to make mobile advertising highly profitable.

But it’s interesting that the sample advertisements release for iAd were the same big-brand advertising that we’ve grown used to seeing on social websites. Pixar, Nike, and Best Buy can all afford the distribution network and commercial power required for effective brand-focused advertising.

Can small businesses—often the financial bread and butter of blogs and websites—find the same success on a mobile platform?

What platforms like iAd, adMob (now acquired by Google), and others can show web designers is that mobile audiences, for the most part, aren’t particularly involved in browsing with the intent to spend.

Action-driven advertising, particularly the advertising for service businesses and direct response products so common on independent blogs and websites, may not be as effective when transferred to the smaller mobile screen.

What About E-Commerce Websites?

What About E-Commerce Websites?

The value of mobile design for sales-driven websites is a little trickier to judge. Most major e-commerce websites—giant Amazon included—are available as a mobile page in some form.

In Amazon’s case, almost all functionality is intact. Users can order products, buy MP3s and other digital media, and add items to their wishlist just as they could online.

But Amazon’s Mobile Payment Service (MPS) has only been available since October 2009. Phone browsers have been in existence since halfway through the last decade, leaving many websites short on mobile-focused payment options right from the start.

While it’s difficult to find conclusive statistics for the value of Amazon’s payment system or mobile website, it’s safe to assume that they’re not as valuable for the company as more traditional approaches to purchases using a desktop or laptop computer. After all, who would order major products while on the go and on a rush? Wouldn’t a bigger screen size be needed to browse through photos of a product?

It’s even more difficult to determine the value of mobile design for small sales-focused websites. Most e-commerce tycoons are hesitant to release information on their mobile shopping platforms, often because of the edge it could provide to competition. With e-commerce design largely unaccommodating to mobile users, it appears as if mobile sales don’t account for a large percentage of online orders.

Direct response advertisers, often some of the most profitable marketers on the internet, may find mobile commerce an even more difficult pill to swallow too. Just like Amazon, they’re stuck with a difficult goal: convincing users to buy while away from the comfort and psychological security of their PC.

Unlike Amazon, they’re rarely given the luxury of their own one-click payment system. Most action-driven direct response websites depend on customers being able to open their wallets, find their credit cards, and order now.

Does Your Website Need a Mobile Version?

Unless you’re the owner of a major social website, a popular entertainment blog, or a web property with a focus on big-brand advertising and sheer content, then the answer is most likely "no", or at the very most, just "maybe."

With just a fraction of mobile users reaching further than the social web when out and about, it’s unlikely that content-rich websites and sales-driven online presences will even be seen on a mobile browser—much less seen with an interest in advertising or purchases.

The one exception is in the world of design and technology. If your business depends on being able to demonstrate a command of technology, a mobile version of your website could be a worthwhile investment. If you’re a designer frequently approached for mobile web design projects, your own mobile-focused website could serve as a quick demonstration of your abilities for prospective clients—if that’s something you want to get into in the first place..

Until then, it’s firmly in the "no" camp for us. Effective web design isn’t about indulging and providing for every possible visitor, as much as we may wish it was.

If you’re in need of a website with a clear commercial focus—be it advertising-supported or sales-driven—put your focus on the majority of your site visitors.

Right now, we don’t expect they’ll be your mobile users.

Are mobile versions of websites essential right now? Is the focus on mobile web design warranted or out of proportion in terms of return of investment? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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About the Author

Mathew Carpenter is an 18-year-old-business owner and entrepreneur from Sydney, Australia. Mathew is currently working on Sofa Moolah, a website that teaches you how to make money online. Follow Mathew on Twitter: @matcarpenter. Follow Sofa Moolah on Twitter: @SofaMoolah.

44 Comments

Adam S

April 26th, 2010

With due respect, this is bad advice. If your website doesn’t look “right” in a mobile browser, the odds are very good that you will have lost a visitor, and that visitor may not mean a click today, but tomorrow, it might be a click, or a subscription, or purchase, or a reader, or merely an advocate. That reader may today be a desktop reader checking his RSS on the road, and he moves on since he can’t properly read the article on your site.

Mobile traffic is going up and up and up. You may reason your way out of a presence, but make no mistake, it’s the same as opting out of participating in a large portion of the internet.

Tschai

April 26th, 2010

Yes.
And No.

Yes, it’s smart to get mobile-ready at least.
And it’s a trend that more and more visitors come from mobile browsers.
My users (of a humble vBulletin niche forum) ask for a mobile version.

No, it’s too early and the percentage is too small (yet) and you should only focus to a good web-version initailly.

Spyros

April 26th, 2010

I think the last section of the article sums it up nicely. Granted i am rather new to the web development and designing world, it seems to me that trying to reach out to every possible media, browser and device type is not worth it to some extent, at least not for the time being and not for most of the smaller scale projects that most people develop.

That Graphic Guy

April 26th, 2010

I’ve only started messing with the mobile web stuff now. I really don’t see why everyone would need to have a mobile website. I do see the benefit for some i.e. real estate agents who have the MLS system tied into their website.

Shane

April 26th, 2010

bad advice for sure. Mobile Browsing in on the rise. I myself rely on my phone very heavily while in transit or other situations I don’t have space to use my computer. To neglect your mobile following is to fall behind

Sean

April 26th, 2010

@Adam S –
By that logic, I would assume that you continue to design for IE6 and below, and possibly even Netscape 4.7, since if your stats are anything like mine, you still see the occasional visitor using these browsers.

You see, the point Mathew is making here is the same one that has been made for IE6 support – abandon it when your visitors say you are ready, not when the broader web community says so. IE6 is still 10%+ on some web sites I run, so I spend the time to make sure they work with IE6.

Ditto with mobile – when my visitors start browsing my websites with their mobiles, I’ll start designing for them. But I am not going to spend the time when they are less than 1% of my traffic.

Ben R

April 26th, 2010

I was just at an event apart, a speaker by the name of Luke Wroblewski talked about designing for mobile first. One of the best things this does is help define the focus of your site because of the limiting space available, you can’t just throw content up there like many people tend to do on “non mobile” sites. From this mobile version you can take that refined focus and scale it up to fit larger browsers. Just a different way of thinking about mobile web. Does everyone need a mobile site, no, does defining a focus and really being strict about what content goes where all while providing your site to more users on more platforms hurt? I think not.

Jacob Gube

April 26th, 2010

@Sean: Took the words out of my mouth. Was going to use the same analogy. I think the point is: Is it worth your time when you think purely out of return of investment? I agree with @Tschai‘s standpoint: It won’t hurt to be ready for the change.

I think the simplified point that I got from reading Mat’s article was: There could be a lot of things you can be doing right now that would get you a lot more bang for your buck.

dev0347

April 27th, 2010

Because it now costs small fortunes to call for directory enquiries [118 in the UK, 411 in the USA], our household uses mobile Safari on our iPhones for looking up businesses: yesterday, it was for places to fix my car; Saturday, it was for farm shops selling local vegetables.

So I would say that, if you’re not going to invest in a mobile site, then make sure:

1. Your business (or your client’s business) details get returned by Google in a way that lets people see the address and phone number without visiting your site.

Or

2. You at least set up a minimal mobile webpage which can give all your contact details.

Aisha

April 27th, 2010

Thank you very much, I love such a helpful post on !love your work guy.

rory

April 27th, 2010

I think it is important to stay up to date with trends, however should everyone rush out and get their local web designer to knock up a mobile site?…no…well maybe?!
I’d encourage any of my clients to have a mobile site, as although its a small number browsing on smart phones the number is increasing and it would be beneficial for their online campaign…plus it will earn me a few more dollars!

Mike

April 27th, 2010

I think every site should have text based or mobile version…as you said facebook, a user with mobile can do everything on facebook and he do no need PC. Facebook is good mobile social network.

Due to the success of facebook, twitter (m.twitter.com), youtube mobile applications and opera mobile browser…i think it easy to use mobile for internet and now its time for web designers to focus on mobile based web sites

Satya Prakash

April 27th, 2010

I saw 1 visitors visit my blog as an average.

Lee

April 27th, 2010

I was just at an event apart, a speaker by the name of Luke Wroblewski talked about designing for mobile first. One of the best things this does is help define the focus of your site because of the limiting space available, you can’t just throw content up there like many people tend to do on “non mobile” sites. From this mobile version you can take that refined focus and scale it up to fit larger browsers. Just a different way of thinking about mobile web. Does everyone need a mobile site, no, does defining a focus and really being strict about what content goes where all while providing your site to more users on more platforms hurt? I think not.

Niubi

April 27th, 2010

I think the mobile market has quite a way to go before its a meaningful one. Ecommence sites like DubLi don’t really need to focus on the mobile market, since shoppers generally take their time.

Jordan Walker

April 27th, 2010

I think designing for mobile is important if it helps you, otherwise if you are not getting lots of people to your site, what’s the point.

Bertrand

April 27th, 2010

You definately need mobile presence. Everyday, more and more people are going to be on mobile platform and not being there is a mistake in my opinion. Sure, your site may not look fancy and all but at least put your contact info. I get so mad when some website decided to go all out with Flash when all I want is their phone numbers…

Adam S

April 27th, 2010

@Sean @Jacob Gube:

The analogy is flawed. You’re comparing the lagging 1% to the trending 1%. You don’t design for IE6 because you want to help your readers have a better experience. But by abandoning mobile, you’re intentionally serving me a poorer experience.

I get the point, but you can’t have it both ways: sure, you can’t spend time on everything, so mobile may not be worth it compared to other much needed development. But here you’re rationalizing not putting in the effort at all.

Ask Google or Apple about catering to a small but influential crowd. See if they agree with you about waiting until critical mass.

Jacob Gube

April 27th, 2010

@Adam S: The “lagging 1%” is more like 22.1%.

I don’t think I’m rationalizing 0% effort on mobile web design. It’s about prioritization. Effort should equal reward.

Very simplified example: You have 100 project hours. You have the ability to commit to any work as long as you’re within 100 project hours. The logical and simplistic approach is to commit more project hours to more important tasks, right?

I’m a fan of Getting Real philosophy. Focus on what’s important. More importantly, work from large to small. If, after you’ve done everything, and you still have a few hours left, then work on your mobile design. If not, forget it (for now).

What we’re seeing though is that people are doing it the other way around. I understand the need or desire to get a jump-start on Mobile Web, but to quote from Getting Real again, “It’s a Problem When It’s a Problem” or “Don’t waste time on problems you don’t have yet”.

Adam S

April 27th, 2010

I appreciate what you’re saying, but I don’t agree with the mix-and-match of the approach. 22.1% of what? All internet traffic? I maintain a site that gets about ~8 million hits a month, over 50% is Firefox alone. IE6 makes up about 2% of the hits. Another site I maintain gets about 4% IE6 (but almost exclusively during the day, i.e. at work). I don’t mind serving them a watered down experience in favor of a capable mobile experience. And I’d recommend any worthwhile webmaster look into the ROI of serving a full experience to IE6 and a sub-par experience to mobile users. I’m hard pressed to find a large site that can afford to support IE6 that can argue against a good mobile presence.

The average site ought to support old browsers only in a limited sense and should at least validate that the site works from a mobile browser. But to each his own, I’ve said my piece.

Joseph

April 27th, 2010

I saw 1 visitors visit my blog as an average.

Peter

April 27th, 2010

To paraphrase from Steve Jobs, who was quoting Gretzky, you skate to where the puck is going to be not to where it is. Waiting for the general public to come around before you start working on something is pure folly. You need to see where things are going and be ready for it. Mobile web use is growing quickly and if you’re not prepared you’re going to be mowed over.

@Jacob Gube, Getting Real says “It’s a problem when it’s a problem” well how about not letting it become a problem in the first place.

We need to be ahead of the general population on Mobile web. To quote Henry Ford about the first car he built “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.”

Jacob Gube

April 27th, 2010

@Peter: Steve Jobs is hardly an unbiased person to quote, seeing that his iPhone and iPad are the catalysts to the attention on Mobile Web.

Also I think you misunderstand that philosophy. The philosophy states that you shouldn’t worry about things that aren’t issues yet. Worry about problems that already exist. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be prepared. I’m not even saying you shouldn’t invest your resources into Mobile Web. I’m saying: Prioritize your other users. Users who are using their laptop or desktop computer to access your site. Until mobile users outnumber traditional computer users on your website, that’s how priorities should be.

In short, be aware of the trend, but also know when to jump on the bandwagon. In my humble opinion, “Because Steve Jobs says so” is not a quantifiable or reasonable justification.

Great discussions folks, and thanks for sharing! Keep ‘em coming.

James Richards

April 27th, 2010

A lot of people were making this same argument about websites in 1995. Typical statement: “Why do I need a website? I’ve got a telephone and I’m in the Yellow Pages.”

Susan Costello

April 27th, 2010

I thought Matthew was talking about whether one needed to develop a native mobile app or not (“Spurred on by the success of Facebook’s mobile platform, YouTube’s iPhone-friendly mobile application, and Twitter’s mobile popularity” – all mobile apps) in which case I agree with him. But he may have (inadvertently) confused the issue by going on to say “a growing number of designers, site owners and entrepreneurs are beginning to believe that they need to make their web presence accessible by phone” and then making the case AGAINST making your website accessible via a mobile browser. Clearly a mistake (and very bad advice indeed) – as agreed by the majority of those adding comments.

patrick h. lauke

May 1st, 2010

It’s one thing to design a completely separate, mobile-specific site that is different from your “regular” site – one where the whole navigation and interaction model have been refactored to take into account the smaller device screens and limited interface of mobile devices. Yes, those take great effort to get right (and I’ll digress a second to say: mobile sites should not be “dumbed down” versions – there is this idea of the “mobile context” which, in essence, says that your users are at a bus stop or something, so they won’t want access to the full experience or information…I call shenanigans on that).

However, there are now quite robust techniques that can help make your site adapt to different devices, screen sizes, etc. Just as most sites now don’t need a separate printer-friendly version, and instead simply hook a separate stylesheet in for screen and print, with things like CSS3 mediaqueries you can optimise the look and feel (and visual arrangement) of a site for various situations. So, at the very least, you can ensure that your one single site looks the best it can on different devices…and that does not require a massive amount of extra work.

I collected some thoughts (some examples of sites that don’t get it with regards to mobile and offer a neutered experience, sites that get it right, plus some optimisation/adaptation techniques from basic to quite extreme) in a recent presentation http://www.slideshare.net/redux/making-your-site-mobilefriendly-rit

Jason Coles

May 3rd, 2010

I think the trend towards building mobile websites is a mistake. Both a desktop and mobile version of a site should be lightweight to work on both platforms and usable enough to work on both platforms without requiring an entirely different site to be made.

Just my opinion.

Bill

May 23rd, 2010

What would you expect out of an 18 year old kid.

Marien

June 4th, 2010

@Bill: do you always comment with such wise remarks?
He might be more succesful than you’ll ever be. Please don’t pollute the internet any more with that kind of blabber.

Anyways ontopic:
I also believe that totally ignoring the mobile market is a sign of ignorence. However developing applications ‘just to have one also’ is equally dumb (imho).
Developing the most important pages of your website for use on mobile devices wouldn’t hurt, and since these are also web-based, shouldn’t take that much extra time!

Niek

July 16th, 2010

Agreed. Pageweight is not the only thing that matters on mobile devices. There’s another big factor which may constitute a mobile version of a site: screen real-estate.

Beau Vass

July 16th, 2010

A few of the replies have mentioned IE6 as an example supporting the article but I see it the other way.

We support IE6, to some extent (whether minimally or fully), because people use it to access our sites. I think if you argue to support IE6, you should argue to support Mobile. Not the other way around.

I see the points of those agreeing with the article – its about prioritisation – and that’s completely true and fair, but I would disagree with the sentiment of the article that if you don’t run a social networking site you shouldn’t bother with mobile yet. Besides, the best mobile “designs” are normally fairly simple in design (or at least appearing so). That, in theory, should make them fairly straight forward to get going.

Do people just not visit your site from a mobile device? OR do they not visit because you don’t have a decent mobile friendly version for them to use, and make them want to come back and tell others about it?

Developers have being saying which IE6 usage % at which they will stop supporting it for years, but as the level of use has gone down, so has the number they were (are) going to stop at. Then we moved on to graceful degradation, and then to progressive enhancement, essentially ending the debate about what % is low enough in some ways.

I believe it was at this point that the focus changed from focusing on the majority of users, to focusing on as many users as we can. To me, that is why mobile design IS worth it. I think it is more a question of how much time, effort and money to put into it, rather than whether you should do it at all or not.

Ed at Kliky

July 16th, 2010

Those horseless carriages were a bad idea too.

As far as design goes, web standards is supposed to help take care of this. Now, if you re-write the post as whether you need to build native applications for mobile devices you may be able to make a case. In this instance… well, you can see the comments.

NICK

August 8th, 2010

very interseting article…i think mobile networking is very important in today’s life….because we can’t live without mobile as well s internet…so it is very useful….as today every mobile company provide….internet facility in there handsets…because it’s the daily need….web design is very important….today life online is going on better and better…so its only through web designers…..

great article thanks

Dan

August 14th, 2010

Couldnt disagree more with your assesment that only social sites etc need mobile website. The writer needs to spend some time in the real world where we all spend the majority of our time NOT in front of a computer screen. I would gladly ditch my notebook computer and use my iphone for all online activity if everyone made a site that worked well on it.

Btw, i typed this response on my iphone cause i dont want to go sit down at a desk and do it. Thats soooo 2007. :)

Sarie

August 20th, 2010

I strongly disagree with the advise. Not just because I am working with an online marketing firm but with all the statistics i have been reading and a mobile user as well, creating your visibility online through your mobile phone is definitely a must especially for small local business owners? More than anything else, mobile users, would want easy access for things like restaurants, delivery and similar service oriented establishments. And the best way you could engage with your prospects and customers is through a mobile web visibility.
And creating mobile websites is not at all expensive compared to building a desktop website, so to speak. So, I guess, it all depends on the business priorities. But aren’t all business owners prioritising their profits more than anything else? Well, being visible via the mobile web would definitely not create a dent on their marketing budget!

Ricky Rath

November 17th, 2010

I’m joining the conversation late, but this is a good topic so I want to tip my hat to the author for starting it. The raw data advocating going mobile is compelling, although not entirely convincing. Hence the title of this article.
Unlike a traditional website, which has become widely accepted as a “must” for a majority of businesses, until mobile reaches a certain saturation level (which WILL occur, based on the data) the answer to the question is relative.
The simple answer to this complex question is: “Are a significant portion of your customers mobile?” and since we’re talking about small businesses who are reactionary: “Is your competition going mobile?”

Digital Monkey

January 13th, 2011

I agree, you need to prioritize based on your audience. What is the purpose of the website and the content on the website. Does the content lend to a mobile optimized version? What are your analytics telling you? What is the ROI… if the visitors that are coming to your site on mobile are people you have already converted and are just checking the address or phone number on the way to the establishment then maybe hardly worth the investment. If they are making full out conversions then they can be factored into the equation but like a online ad campaign, you don’t blanket your ad spend everywhere in the hopes of catching as many fish as you can. You hone in on the fish with the biggest yield.

slicendicen

April 16th, 2011

Bad advice… mobile marketing is on the rise and almost 2/3 of all internet browsers are using their smart phone or cell phone… I have several clients that have mobile websites and have found there mobile websites receive greater traffic than their pc desktop version…

Rohan

April 27th, 2011

I don’t agree with you, but I do applaud your challenge.

Ashish

April 28th, 2011

Sean, a late entrant to your blog post, but I did find the advice for “designers and developers” useful. Mobile sites are a good showcase for all of us in web design sphere.

But what I have seen from the Google Analytics reports of my website and clients is that the number of mobile users is steadily increasing. We are in web design business so that may be due to we being ahead on the technology curve, but even for B2B clients, we have seen this shift. Two important things in my opinion that are changing the game are:

1. Use of QR codes and Microsoft tags which have seen an increased adoption. These tags connect the print medium quite well to the mobile medium and you would want to be on user’s mobiles in form of an MMS.
2. Usage of tablets – They are technically near to the phones but usage is similar to a laptop. This cross hybrid usable and useful device is a game changer and you do not want to be on the move always to be using them.

zastie

May 2nd, 2011

Visitors usually don’t know what they really need before you show something to them.I never thought that I will need a web service like twitter before twitter came out, but now I can’t live without it.
Obiviously the mobile device will be the future,at least for the most of the normal users.But the problem is that if we designer and developers get ready for it.Don’t think mobile web in a desktop way.

allen bovey

September 20th, 2011

uhhh…..its amazing how a good article can change so quickly in relevance. By 2012 there will be more searches by Smart Devices than Desktops….to not address the needed changes in web site design would be neglectful for a business. But hey, if you are still into incandescent bulbs….you probably don’t care about Smart Phones either. heh, heh

Kenneth Brems

September 21st, 2011

Hey there this is somewhat of off topic but I was wondering if blogs use WYSIWYG editors or if you have to manually code with HTML. I’m starting a blog soon but have no coding experience so I wanted to get guidance from someone with experience. Any help would be enormously appreciated!

Chris

November 28th, 2011

How have things changed! Now mobile will surpass PC browsing and google is about to penalize people for not having their sites mobile. Bottom line if a site is not mobile it just won’t work. Great article but I like the idea that mobile is growing like crazy.

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