Monday, December 19, 2011

Mobile web development

Why mobile webs are different
You need to adapt your web application since the usability of mobile usage is different compared to the desktop:
• smaller screen size (e.g. 320x480)
• vast variations of browsers & platforms (each with different limitations & compatibilities e.g. some doesn't support javascript yet)
• competing attentions / multitasking users (e.g. the user may use the mobile while waiting for a bus or talking to friends), this leads to more distractability and shorter session (3 min in average instead of 10 min average of desktop users).
• different input devices (e.g. multitouch & virtual keyboard via touch screen instead of desktop keyboard & mouse)

Design strategies
• define user's goals and how they can accomplish their goal in your web with minimum efforts (i.e. minimum clicks/inputs)
• prioritize the features of the desktop version of your web, implement only the top 20% in your mobile version

Usability tips
• implement only 20% of the features of your desktop web application
• minimize user efforts & user inputs, try to infer the context from history/cookies, geolocation, IP address
• no more than 3 clicks (or pages) depth
• limit the main navigation to 4 links, limit the total links in a page to 10
• minimize text, use short/simple words
• to the point, no welcome screen
• limit the bandwidth: simple image, don't use text-image. The bigger the bandwidth, the more users have to pay & the slower your service is.

• avoid horizontal scrolling
• avoid multi columns
• use all area, 100% width (don't use side menu, side advertisements etc)
• use fluid layout instead of fixed layout

General tips
• always provide a link to the desktop version
• the most used features at the top (e.g. login in a bank service, search in a library service)
• provide enough space (min 20px) for clickable elements and links, since finger touches need more space than using a mouse
• use background colours to separate sections
• use a list instead of a table

Beside these, many of the desktop UI usability rules are still apply in the mobile world, such as visual consistency, legible fonts, clear structure, consistent alignments, etc

Device awareness and content adaptation
A common approach to handle the variations of mobile browsers/platforms is
by grouping according to device/browser capabilities (the groups don't need to be mutually exclusive) for example based on screen resolution, portrait/landscape orientation support, javascript/ajax support, geolocation support, markup languages (old wml,xhtml-mp,html5).

Starting with a basic version of your web (e.g. a plain html without css & javascript), create a different version for each group (e.g. different screen resolution) using different css and technologies (javascript, geolocation, etc).

Your web application needs to aware about the capabilities of the client browser/device and then adapts the content according to which group this device falls to. So first we need to know which browser/device the client uses, using http request header information, for example an (rather old) iphone:

User-Agent: Mozilla/5.0 (iPhone; U; CPU iPhone OS 2_2_1 like Mac OS X;
en-us) AppleWebKit/525.18.1 (KHTML, like Gecko) Version/3.1.1
Mobile/5H11 Safari/525.20
Accept: text/xml,application/xml,application/xhtml+xml,

Then using device libraries (e.g. WURFL) to get the list of device/browser capabilities (screen size, javascript/ajax support, etc).

The weakness of this approach is that you need to maintain several versions of your code (e.g. iphone4.css, iphone3.css, android23.css, vintagemobile.css, ....). The mobile/device list is changing fast, you need to keep up with this (and hopefully also the maintainers of the device library you use). The information in the request header & the device libraries may not be accurate. That why it's recommended to limit the number of groups as minimum as possible.

An example of comparison of a desktop and mobile website
Amazon is one of the most progressive company, we can learn by observing their design. This is the desktop version:

This is the mobile version (Android simulator, 320x480):

The mobile version has
• much less features than the desktop version
• less text, less images
• list (for links)
• one column
• the most important features in the top of the pages (the shopping cart and the search.)

In the future I will discuss how to implement geolocation mobile web to determine in which building a student is located. Based on this, we provide contextual information to the student for example about the course room/schedule, computer labs availability, the locations of other students from the same course/study-year.

Source: Steve's blogs

Any comments are welcome :)

Programming the Mobile Web

Beginning Smartphone Web Development

The UI snapshot examples are the courtesy of

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