The number of users browsing the Web from a mobile device continues to rise, yet most mobile web sites are not of a reasonably good quality.

The thing is, creating a great web experience for users of mobile devices is much easier than you might think. We present here the seven steps for you which will help you avoid the pitfalls that have caused many other mobile sites to fail. By the end of this article you’ll know exactly where to focus your efforts in order to build a successful mobile site.

1. Don’t Mix Up Your Markup

A few different types of markup are available for building a mobile web site. You’ll need to choose one that suits the needs of your customers and stick with it.

WML

In the early days of mobile web devices, the only way to surf the mobile web was to browse WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) sites. A WAP site uses WML (Wireless Markup Language) as its primary markup language. WML is an XML markup language based on the card-and-deck metaphor.

Luckily for us, WML has since been superseded by several other technologies — in fact, if you’re just getting into the mobile web game, you can probably ignore WML entirely. WML is mostly used by legacy systems or by sites that explicitly target customers with low-end phones that are obsolete.

One potential group of customers still using WML browsers, however, is those in developing nations. The Nokia 1100 and 1101, for example, are extremely basic, extremely cheap phones, of which an estimated 200 million units have been solid worldwide, making this phone the best-selling model to date, worldwide. If your site is targeted to this market segment, WML might be the best solution for you.

XHTML

For most sites, we can ignore WML and make use of a markup language with which you’re probably much more familiar — XHTML.

Most built-in phone browsers these days can handle XHTML just fine. A mobile phone recognizes two flavors of HTML:

      1. XHTML — the same, basic XHTML rendered by desktop web browsers
      2. XHTML-MP — the MP here stands for Mobile Profile

The difference between these two languages is that XHTML-MP consists of slightly fewer elements and tighter restrictions. These differences exist to make it easier for the mobile device to parse and render a web document, but writing XHTML-MP markup shouldn’t introduce any significant changes to your process for writing regular XHTML.

2. Know Your Phones

As plasma and HD TVs slowly hit the market, broadcasters have run into the problem of where to place their logo and news tickers. Previously, they knew that all TVs were the same 3×2 dimensions, so they knew the relative width of the screen. Now, they’re beginning to feel the pain of dealing with a wide assortment of TV resolutions and dimensions — an issue that web developers deal with on a daily basis.

Of course, the mobile world is even worse! Not only must we cater for different screen sizes and resolutions, but also different shapes. From rectangles that are short and long, to those that are tall and skinny, to perfect squares, the mobile world contains a variety of handsets that almost puzzle you!

If you consider the most common phones available, they can be categorized on the basis of screen size — give or take a few pixels:

  • 128 x 160 pixels
  • 176 x 220 pixels
  • 240 x 320 pixels
  • 320 x 480 pixels

Knowing these screen dimensions helps you optimize some of your content, however it’s best to keep the shape and style of your site as minimal and linear as possible. There is no mouse on a mobile phone — only an up-down feature — so you can’t demand that users jump around the page.

iPhone/Internet-tablet versus old green-screen phones

There are a couple of exceptions to the norm in the mobile phone market. They are the really high-end devices like the iPhone or the Nokia Internet Tablet, and the very basic, old “green-screen” monochrome dot matrix devices such as the Nokia 3310.

Low-end mobile phones have several limitations, including screen resolution and a severely limited ability to render XHTML documents. At the other end of the spectrum, high-end devices often have the ability to run a web browser that’s comparable to one you might use on a desktop machine. Delivering a quality user experience to these devices can be tricky — while the device may be perfectly capable of rendering a full, traditional web page design, it’s probably transmitting data over a cellular network, which is much slower than standard broadband Internet speeds. So even though the device can handle a normal web site, the customer’s situation and the reason why they’re requesting your services may mean that sending them the normal version of your web site isn’t the best solution.

3. Target the Right Customers

The goal for any web site should be to know your customers in order to deliver to them the most appropriate content.

This goal is even more important with mobile sites — not only do you need to know your customers, but you need to know what they are likely to be doing on your mobile site, as well as where they’ll be when they’re doing it. Traditional web site customers are most likely sitting at a desk facing a large monitor that has a decent resolution. Visitors who are browsing your mobile site are unlikely to be in the same circumstances — they might be waiting in line, riding on the train or the bus, driving a car or in a shopping mall. Google is one company that has invested considerable effort into streamlining its web applications to suit mobile users. The web developers at Google have identified and focused on three main groups, and they attempt to target their applications to those customers’ needs. These are three solid categories, and are worth examining for your own mobile site. Let’s look at them now.

a) The Casual Surfer

These customers act in a similar way to customers of traditional web sites. Casual surfers are not really interested in any one thing, but have a few spare minutes between tasks to take a look around. In the world of desktop PCs, those few minutes might occur between meetings, or while the user’s on a short break. For a mobile customer, those few minutes might occur when the user’s sitting outside waiting to meet friends, in a car or taxi traveling somewhere, or even during the morning commute. If your site is focused on the sort of content that would appeal to casual surfers, then be aware of the limitations on the time and screen-size of your mobile customer.

The goal should be to make your content more “sticky”, so that casual surfers come back for more. For example, you shouldn’t serve up long pieces of content. Instead, aim for small, bite-sized chunks that are just enough to keep customers interested, but not so long that users can’t browse your site in the time they have available.

b) The Repeat Visitor

Repeat customers are those that are constantly returning for some sort of specific news or data. If your site is the kind of site that offers information about stocks, gold & silver prices, weather or sports scores, you probably have plenty of repeat visitors. The interface of a mobile device is very limited, so if you know what your repeat visitors are coming back for, time and time again, let that naturally bubble up to the top of the site. Avoid burying the content your customers want behind 3 or 4 clicks.

Mobile web site customization can be difficult, but it’s not impossible. A traditional site might ask you to log in, but on a mobile device, data entry is not as easy to perform, so it’s best avoided.

One option is to allow visitors to use their desktop machines to streamline their mobile experience. Take a page from Apple’s iTunes Music Store as an example. A repeat customer might customize his or her version of the mobile site while at a desktop machine; this could generate a special URL in which all of that user’s preferences are encoded. The next time the user visits your site from a mobile device, he or she can take advantage of this special URL, enjoying an experience that’s completely customized to his or her preferences.

c) The “Urgent, Now!” Visitor

Depending on your business, your definition of “Urgent, Now!” will vary. For an online store, a customer might consider the following message urgent:

“My books were supposed to arrive yesterday. They’re late. Where are they?”

A more seriously urgent scenario might be:

“I’m running 10 minutes late. Will I be able to catch my fast train or a fight?”

For some customers, everything is urgent! But by identifying the most important needs of your customers and making the relevant information accessible within one click or less, you’ll increase the usefulness of your mobile site enormously.

4. Publish the Bare Minimum

One of the common misconceptions about mobile web development is the misguided notion that content from your traditional web site can be easily re-purposed into smaller bit-sized chunks for the mobile version. A simple change of style from media=”screen” to media=”handheld” is all you need to do to magically mobilize your site, right?

You are mistaken here.

While it’s indeed possible to filter content with the liberal use of display: none in your mobile style sheet, in reality, this isn’t a good idea. In fact, many CMS systems can output a mobile, streamlined version of your web site, but even this is not always what your customers will want.

The W3C defines the concept of One Web as follows:

One Web means making, as far as is reasonable, the same information and services available to users irrespective of the device they are using. However, it does not mean that exactly the same information is available in exactly the same representation across all devices. The context of mobile use, device capability variations, bandwidth issues and mobile network capabilities all affect the representation. Furthermore, some services and information are more suitable for and targeted at particular user contexts.

As this definition suggests, some things are simply not available (or even usable) on some devices. Additionally, some devices (such as a mobile phone) are much better at certain activities (like making phone calls) than other devices. Therefore, a device designed for a specific activity should utilize its unique features on the Web.

While the concept of having only one site, and to simply style it differently depending on the medium the visitor is using, is popular with many standardistas, a separate mobile site is required in order to deliver an optimized experience for mobile users. Customers who are surfing on a mobile device have different needs and requirements, so to force-feed them the same content as that displayed on the traditional site is a recipe for disaster. The following images show a good example of this principle. The Best Buy mobile site displays only two functions (Product Search and Find A Store) — a far cry from the traditional site.