Beyond Responsive Design: Optimizing for Different Mobile Devices

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Article ImageAbout 40% of unique visitors to the website of the digital food brand Epicurious come from mobile devices, and 20% come from tablets. It would have been easy as pie to group these non-desktop users together when the brand overhauled its website last February. Easy, but a very bad recipe.  

After all, mobile and tablet users are looking at different screen sizes and possibly consuming content differently. "We knew we have three separate use cases we had to design for," says Eric Gillin, executive director of Epicurious. Indeed, viewing tablet and mobile users as one and the same can produce poor user experiences, which is why content producers must make special considerations when creating websites for the devices. Keeping much of the same content on both platforms has become de rigueur, but smaller screens often require big differences in how that content is presented and can be found.

"Mobility encapsulates tablets and mobile devices on-the-go, but from a design perspective, you shouldn't do the same design on the tablet as you should on the mobile phone," says Jeff Dance, CEO of Fresh Consulting, a company of designers, developers, and digital strategists. "The navigation and layout change more dramatically at the mobile level."

Focusing on the experience of mobile and tablet users is increasingly critical, as more people access content through non-desktop means. comScore reports, in its "2015 U.S. Digital Future in Focus," that digital media consumption jumped 394% on smartphones and 1,721% on tablets between December 2010 and December 2014.

Meanwhile, 91% of respondents in the "2014 Mobile Behavior Report" say access to content "any way that I want it" is important to them. Epicurious gets that. "The real story of mobile design is about the fact that [content is] being promoted and shared through newsletters and through Facebook and search, and I don't know how you're going to get to us-and I can't control that," Gillin says. "That's why all our content looks really good on all three platforms."

Mobile Users Defy Generalizations

To be sure, making content and design decisions for different mobile devices is more of an art than a science. People don't use them in neat, confined ways; broad assumptions make wobbly foundations for decision making. For instance, the industry used to think of the tablet as the at-home device and the smartphone as the out-and-about option. "That was an early hypothesis, and there were a lot of good reasons to believe that because you'd think a larger screen would be more attractive no matter what," says John Devanney, principal at Moment, a digital product strategy and design consultancy. "But convenience and habit trump a lot of these things, and when you carry [the mobile] with you all the time, that habit continues, whether you're at home or at work or on-the-go."

The "2014 Mobile Behavior Report" found that while 65% of tablet owners say they use their device while watching TV at least once per day, 70% of smartphone users say they do the same with theirs. Meanwhile, user behavior on the tablet is hardly homogenous. "We're finding that, in some cases, users on a tablet share a lot in common with what they're looking for with users from a desktop, and in other cases, people visiting from a tablet are sharing a lot more in common with people visiting from the mobile," says Matt McDermott, creative director of idfive, a Baltimore-based integrated marketing and communications firm. "It really depends on the site."

Responsive Design Requires Focus on the User

It's tempting to think responsive design-the web development approach that is becoming a default for many content producers-will remove the need to make any decisions about content or design. After all, the technique allows designers to create a single site that renders properly on different devices.

But responsive design actually requires lots of big choices to be made in advance, concerning what will be on the site and how it will look. Publishers may choose to hide some content on the mobile site that appears on the desktop and tablet-or include content that only appears on the mobile, for instance. They may alter design elements and features to be more user-friendly on small screens. "It's not like ‘set it and forget it,' and you put it up on a responsive site and the code takes care of the rest," Gillin says. "You have to build the code to execute on your vision, and you need three visions."

Some people using responsive design techniques are falling short, Dance says. "People are making the design responsive, but they're not making it a good experience at the mobile level," he says. "There are a lot of changes you need to make to make it a good experience." For instance, a horizontal menu might work fine on a tablet but could be cumbersome to access on a smaller mobile screen. This is why many mobile sites are using vertical menus that appear when users click a button with three horizontal lines that designers call a "hamburger icon."

It's also important to appreciate the challenges mobile devices can present to human hands. For example, Fresh Consulting considered stubby fingers when designing the homepage for the Talking Rain Beverage Co. On the tablet site, it created a horizontal row of the company's colorful Sparkling ICE beverages. Users can touch individual bottles to learn more about a specific drink flavor or can touch arrows to navigate through the row.

Keeping user experience in mind, the agency went with a simpler version for visitors on mobile phones. They see an individual flavor, with a description underneath, and can touch arrows to move to the next or previous drink. "By showing one bottle versus 11 on mobile, you're not having to worry about trying to hit the right sliver [for each flavor]," Dance says.

(Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

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