Mobile website development 101 (because so many are still flunking)

An analysis by the political news site Politico revealed last week that political campaigns are failing to capitalize on the mobile web. The media outlet examined the mobile sites of candidates in roughly 40 competitive House and Senate races and found the majority “were plagued with missed opportunities to find volunteers, donors and voters.” All-too-familiar mistakes included ill-formatted or “clunky” pages that frequently crashed, illegibly shrunken content and multiple pages that make navigation — and, importantly, donating — difficult. Perhaps most importantly, some sites required users to drill down through multiple pages and jump through other hoops to make donations.

Of course, political campaigns aren’t alone in mucking up the mobile web. One survey earlier this year found that only 6 percent of small businesses in the U.S. maintained a mobile website, and 46 percent had a site that wasn’t optimized for mobile. Another survey found that only 9 percent of the websites of small to medium-sized businesses are optimized for phones. Meanwhile, mobile accounted for 30 percent of online traffic and 15 percent of online orders in 2013, according to ShopVisible. So while usage continues to soar, much of the mobile web remains a nightmare.

That’s a problem because consumer-facing businesses, political campaigns and other entities should generally view a mobile website as an underpinning of any comprehensive marketing strategy. Smartphone apps are great, of course, but a mobile-optimized site enables organizations to reach a far broader audience with lower development costs. Rather than shying away from the mobile web, organizations considering building such a site must address a few crucial factors:

  • Define your goals. A simple mobile site can make it easy for consumers to access important information such as a business’s location, phone number and hours, while a more complex site can be used to place orders, communicate with customer service personnel and conduct transactions. A good mobile site takes into what users are likely to want to access the site for, making it easy for them to find that information with minimal clicks and scrolling on the smaller screen. And provide a simple call to action enabling your users to call, email, donate or buy with as few clicks as possible.
  • Responsive design vs. a dedicated site. Just like a native app, a dedicated site that redirects mobile users can provide a richer experience that’s highly customized for smartphones (and even for feature phones). But enterprises that don’t need such a sophisticated online presence should consider cutting development costs by using responsive design, which enables them to build a single site which is restructured and resized to best fit the device being used to access it.
  • Simplicity is the key. Far too many “mobile” sites simply serve as shrunken versions of sites built for PCs, shoving as much information as possible onto an overcrowded home page. Instead, clearly defined menus should be presented on the home screen and a search box should be presented at the top of the page. Retailers and search providers should consider giving users filters that allow them to narrow their search before they even click “enter,” and fields that require users to input information should be as streamlined as possible.
  • Testing and analytics. Just as a mobile app must be maintained long after its launch, a consumer-facing mobile site requires constant monitoring. Web traffic tools such as Google Analytics make it easy for site owners to track traffic and determine how their sites are being used, enabling designers to tweak the sites for maximum efficacy. And because new smartphones are constantly coming to market, sites should constantly be tested across a range of devices to ensure the user experience is up to par.

These are only the most basic factors that must be considered when building a mobile website, of course, and they will certainly seem obvious to those in the industry. But the countless enterprises that have long kept the mobile web at arm’s length can gain an edge by keeping these points in mind as they begin to build a mobile-optimized site.