Over the last two years, the world has been reinvented yet again. The proliferation of devices and the advances in the interfaces that run on them have raced forward like an avalanche. Nielsen is predicting that 50 percent of the U.S. market will have smartphones by the end of 2011. Apple introduced the iPad and has since sold more than 15 million of them.
This changes things. Consumer expectations have been reset, and they are never going back. Average Joe does not pause to consider, "Hey, I'm on a WAP site now, which has significantly different technical capabilities from a website or an application running on iOS."
Joe just logs on to whatever device he's using to access the web and assumes he will have an amazing, seamless, and intuitive experience doing whatever it is he set out to do. So often, Joe is disappointed. Mediocrity is so common. When he does encounter an experience that is exceptional, he is absolutely delighted.
Your next "website" might not be visited at the site you thought it would be at all. The experience you provide online must be great wherever it is accessed. It must be crafted to appeal to what really matters to your customers wherever and however they come into contact with your brand.
Your next website should be crafted with all this in mind. Here are the foundational attributes that should define how your site is designed and constructed.
Media consumption will drive development needs
Generally, we tend to have a "browser-first" mentality when it comes to web design. We start with a comprehensive architecture designed to accommodate any and all content that appeals to each of our brands' target audience segments. We organize it in intuitive silos so people can access whatever it is they're interested in within two or three clicks from the homepage.
Other platforms are an afterthought -- if they're considered at all. Some subset of content might be rearranged, streamlined, and reorganized into new templates for mobile devices, but that will usually be in phase two. Or three.
Is this the right approach? It depends who your audience is.
Alternative means of accessing web content are rapidly becoming mainstream. About 63 million Americans own smartphones. Yahoo estimates that 36 percent of PC sales will be tablets by next year. Digital TV is just beginning to take shape, but it will be an imperative before you know it.
Within these emerging channels are widely divergent user patterns. Your teenage son and your mother-in-law are not interacting with technology the same way. According to comScore, 50 percent of Americans aged 25-34 have a smartphone -- compared to 1 in 6 of the general population.
That might seem obvious, but how about data from Nielsen showing women aged 35-54 are the heaviest users of social media on their mobile devices?
The picture this paints is one in which media consumption habits -- which have long determined where we buy media -- are now indicators of where we should build media as well.
In short, companies need to prioritize development based on where their customer is most likely to access it -- not based on "what we've always done."
Contextual content determines value
Once we determine where to develop, we need to determine what to develop. The content that people are apt to consume sitting at their desks in front of a computer is not necessarily the same content they're likely to need while sitting in a cab with their mobile devices.
The most obvious example of contextually relevant content for smartphones is location. What is one question people accessing your site on their mobile device are likely to ask? Your location: Where is your office -- or restaurant or ATM -- located?
But there are less obvious examples as well. People are consuming mobile video in droves. BrightRoll CEO Tod Sacerdoti anticipates that fully half of his company's mobile inventory will be video by the end of the year. How will that affect your content strategy?
Significant behavioral differences exist when you're thinking about a tablet environment vs. a phone vs. a PC. Your goal should be to align human needs and behavior with your business objectives. Creating content that is contextually relevant will enable you to do that.
And one word of warning: Don't expect your fancy app to be the face of your brand in mobile. When people search for something on Google, they're not going to find your app. When people click on a link in an email or an article or a tweet, they're not going to find your app. They're going to find your website.
Will it have content that matters to them when they get there?
Responsive web design
For years, we have talked about constructing websites in a manner so that they "degrade gracefully" from platform to platform and from browser to browser. We want to ensure that if an HTML tag doesn't work or a font can't render, the user still has a decent experience viewing the content we create. We address this by building a framework in code and then applying "cascading" styles that define attributes.
While this condition is not new, it is now more imperative than ever due to the proliferation of devices that people are using to access the internet.
While content needs to be contextual, a great deal of your content will be consumed across multiple screens. Creating individual pages designed for the specific constraints of individual screens might not be an effective approach. Moving forward, web design will need to be responsive in nature.
In his e-book, "Responsive Web Design," Ethan Marcotte writes:
Web designers, facing a changing landscape of new devices and contexts, are now forced to overcome the constraints we've imposed on the web's innate flexibility.
We need to let go.
Rather than creating disconnected designs, each tailored to a particular device or browser, we should instead treat them as facets of the same experience. In other words, we can craft sites that are not only more flexible, but that can adapt to the media that renders them.
In short, we need to practice responsive web design.
To see a great example of responsive design in action, check out the newly redesigned BostonGlobe.com. Drag the browser window to different sizes to see how the content and navigation shift from a three-column view optimized for browsers to a two-column grid optimized for tablets to a one-column layout for mobile devices.
The specific methodology of "responsive design" might not be ideal for every situation. But the notion of structuring mark-up for optimized experiences is critical in today's media landscape.
As I pointed out earlier, apps are walled gardens, and they will not replace the need for you to design your website to adapt to the various means in which people consume media. But "will not replace" does not equate to "will not influence."
The fact is that people on smart devices use apps a lot. Often, the experiences people encounter on those apps are -- well, awesome. This has an impact on their expectations.
Users (also known as people) don't care about excuses. They don't care about constraints. They don't stop and ask what the reasons might be for your site to look like crap on their iPhone.
They just leave.
People expect awesome. If it isn't delivered to them, they are not going to get mad. They're not going to cry. They're just not going to interact with you.
Awesome doesn't necessarily mean whiz-bang. It means not sacrificing. It means simplicity. It means providing great content and an experience that does what you expect it to do. Check out mobile.twitter.com on your iPhone. The Twitter mobile site is almost identical in functionality and design to the Twitter app. It just works.
Here are two screen shots from my iPhone. Can you even guess which Twitter is the app and which is HTML?
(Answer: The HTML WAP site is on the left.)
Even on your "traditional website," you need to consider the experience you're providing. Retailers spend millions to enhance the shopping experience they provide to customers at their brick-and-mortar locations. Why then would you consider a bare-bones implementation of some off the shelf e-commerce solution to be a good-enough experience for you customers online?
That is why "good enough" simply isn't good enough.
The good news is that technologies like HTML5 are allowing us to re-imagine the experiences we provide to our customers online. The restrictions that hampered us in developing websites have been lifted.
Meanwhile, very few brands have embraced this opportunity. Until they do, there is an opportunity for companies that act with vision to gain a competitive advantage.
Will you be one of them?
On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.