Mobile vs. Desktop Internet Users, 2007-2015

According to Mary Meeker of Morgan Stanley, mobile traffic will overtake desktop traffic by 2015.

This is part one of a multi-part series in which I am exploring how to make your website mobile-friendly. Here is part two, part three, and part four.

Mobile traffic is an ever-growing slice of the Internet traffic pie; in fact, mobile traffic is expected to outpace desktop traffic any minute now and mobile Internet time has already outpaced PC time. If you have a website, chances are pretty good that more and more people visiting your site are doing so on a handheld device.

Chart comparing time spent on Internet via different mediums in 2010 vs 2013.

According to comScore, smartphones and tablets are responsible for the 93% increase in time spent on the Internet in the last 3 years.

This post is the first of a multi-part series, in which I’m going to explore the idea of being mobile-friendly, why it’s important, the challenges it presents, and most importantly, I’ll define some approaches you might take, the pros and cons of each approach, and some gotchas to look out for. For clarity’s sake, I am lumping tablets in with smartphones for the purposes of this post because they are both mobile and touchscreen-based, and they therefore face many of the same challenges as their handheld cousins.

Is mobile relevant to you?

Depending on your demographics and industry, you may look at your analytics (you do have Google Analytics installed, don’t you?) and see that, actually, you don’t have a large amount of mobile traffic. Hang on though — we may have a chicken-before-egg issue here. If your site isn’t already mobile-friendly, you may be suppressing organic mobile traffic by that fact alone. Think about it: if you go to a website that is clearly not designed for the browser or device you’re using and you find yourself getting frustrated attempting to navigate the site, are you likely to return? How likely are you to try a different browser or device?

You also want to consider the future of mobile in your industry. Say you’re an e-retailer selling car parts to mechanics and consumers around the world. My first thought is that mechanics in general are probably not terribly hip on mobile right now. But will that change? Part of what’s so exciting about Google Glass is not how it will revolutionize consumer electronics, but how it will revolutionize work and learning. Imagine repairing your car with Google Glass on, with a set of instructions or even a YouTube instructional video playing in the corner of your eye while you work, leaving your hands free. Google Glass hasn’t dropped yet, of course, so a gadgeteer might have a smartphone displaying those instructions or playing that video instead.

It’s very safe to assume that mobile technology and mobile use of the Internet is only going to get cheaper, more common, and more advanced. (This is getting to be out of scope for this post, but if you haven’t heard of the singularity, I encourage you to do a little reading on it.)

Set some goals

So you want your site to look good on a handheld – but how do you go about achieving it? You have a few options that we’ll explore later, and your decision shouldn’t be a toss-up. First, we’ll define a few goals your mobile-friendly approach should achieve, then we’ll look at different strategies and how they achieve these goals (or don’t).

  1. A mobile user should be able to access the same content as a desktop user. It’s important that your mobile visitors feel they’re getting full service. This is particularly important if your users are accessing your site in different settings: if a visitor was able to find a page on your desktop-friendly site, then they should certainly be able to find the same content on your mobile-friendly site.
  2. Mobile users should not have to wait much longer than a desktop user for a page to load. Performance on a mobile device is a key issue. Assume that all your mobile users are visiting your site via cell towers, not WiFi. That means they might be facing throttled download speeds, spotty reception, and they probably have no time or patience to wait for a page to load.
  3. Interaction and navigation should be simple. Remember that your mobile users usually use only their thumbs to navigate your site. That means no hover effects, and the bottom right and left corners are the easiest to reach with thumbs. Also keep in mind that screen resolution varies drastically, especially when you consider the fact that phones and tablets can be turned on their sides.
  4. All or most major devices should be supported. This means that your site should be future-friendly; that is, your site’s mobile environment should be designed with the assumption that new devices with different screen sizes will eventually enter the market, and you need to be prepared to handle that. (More on this later.)

Of course, this is not an exhaustive list. You may come up with your own goals that you want to achieve. You may determine that some of the above goals are more or less important relative to each other, depending on your site and your users. Perhaps you have some feedback from users that has prompted you to start thinking about going mobile-friendly — you should be sure your goals adequately address your users’ concerns as well.

What other goals can you think of? What other unique issues do mobile users face that desktop users take for granted? What frustrations have you run into on the web while using a mobile device?

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