What your grandfather can teach you about mobile web design

March 29th, 2011 by

“Mobile will ultimately be the way we provision most of our services. You should literally put your best team to work on building mobile applications.  The answer should be mobile FIRST.” ~ Eric Schmidt, former Google CEO, Atmosphere talks.

The more things change they more they stay the same. This comment may seem odd in the context of mobile website design but humor me by taking a look at how the world’s first web page approximately displayed in the 1990s: World Wide Web

No screenshots exist of the first –ever website and web server, running on a NeXT computer at CERN, the brainchild of Tim Berners-Lee. Plus, the nature of Internet sites is to evolve on a daily basis with new content. But, the above is pretty close approximation to the original and confirmed as such by CERN itself.

So what’s the big deal, you may ask, about such a simple site that could have been put together by your grandfather with a Notepad editor on Windows in about 5 minutes?

Well, since you already know the Gartner prediction that By 2013, mobile phones will overtake PCs as the most common Web access device worldwide, you may have already noticed that the mobile front-door for a number of the heavyweight sites like Facebook and IBM look eerily similar to the CERN site above.

Philosophically speaking, with regards mobile site design, it appears we have a come a full circle since that momentous day in 1990 when Lee launched his first hypertext site and browser-editor.

Across the board, each time a leading company puts an “M” into its mobile strategy the emphasis is on simplicity with a 95% reduction in images, bells and whistles and anything that distracts the user from the primary navigation hyperlinks.

For the last decade, there has been a battle between websites (and designers) who favor a shotgun approach to site layout versus those who engage a sniper strategy to design pages.

Within the top five most visited sites ranked by Alexa.com, Yahoo and Google represent examples of the former and the latter.

At the laptop browser level, consider the shotgun approach adopted by Yahoo, which attempts to cram as much information and access points into the home page as possible. This strategy appears to have changed little in the last decade.

Compare Yahoo to the revolutionary tactics of Google, the world’s most visited site, which maximizes white space, fewer calls to action and a deliberate strategy of eliminating all advertising on the front page.

But, what works for Google at the laptop level also works on the mobile front.  But, not because it wants to (it does!) but because it has to: the limited real estate and user interface strategies on the mobile front require a return to basics and the original vision put forward by Berners-Lee in the hypertext world.

Thus, take a look at Yahoo’s revised mobile strategy: http://m.yahoo.com/

Most readers would agree, that while still busy, there has been a drastic cut in content with a return to basics.

Even Bing, which has done an excellent job simplifying its core ‘decision engine’ (including an elegant background image rotator), has cut the fat from its mobile site.

While you can find hundreds of Internet articles outlining some of the technical steps in building a mobile site, including this excellent one by Mashable, the real solution to deploying a successful mobile strategy may be to simply re-examine the world’s first website put together by Tim Berners-Lee.

The gosh darn honest truth that confronts all web designers today is that the small rectangular screens on a mobile phone favor the sniper design rifle over the shotgun.

If you find yourself carrying a shotgun it may be time to let your grandfather loose on a notepad editor. Sometimes experience does have its benefits.

Tip: If you are still evaluating a mobile strategy for your current client websites, use this mobile emulator to help you visualize what your several sites look like across various mobile phones.

Guest Blogger: Jason Stevens from jason-stevens.com / Freelance web developer, tech writer and follower of cloud computing trends. Follow him on Twitter @_jason_stevens_

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