Hold That Box

Some thoughts we've had.

The world has changed and you likely need to change with it. For the first time since the early 1990s, we've seen a major shift in how people use the internet.

To understand how something has changed you typically need to look at its history.

In 1996 you needed a website to promote your business; the developed world was getting online rapidly by this point. Traditional media were still the primary means of communicating with your customers but having a website opened you up to consumers all over the world and gave you a 24/7 presence for people with questions about your business. The world pretty much stayed like that as various web technologies came and went.

We went through a phase where mobile phones were just starting to provide the odd on-line feature and WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) was all the rage among those looking to create a mobile web experience. WAP failed miserably to live up to the hype and deploying a website that supported mobile and desktop platforms essentially required two completely separate sites despite some fairly innovative approaches.

Mobile browsers were, at best, weak similes of their desktop counterparts. Feature parity between mobile and desktop websites was, and still is, rare. You'd often be able to access information but interacting with the website in anything but a passive manner was typically not an option using WAP.

There were incremental shifts and websites slowly turned more into the web applications we see today. This was driven by the slowly maturing Javascript language and the use of ASP and PHP languages on the web server. There was also starting to be some level of web standards support in browsers, even with Internet Explorer still dominating the web market.

Roll forward to 2007 and we'd been seeing ever more complex 'smart' phones appearing over the previous few years. Some of these still supported or relied on WAP but most were heading towards having browsers that tried their best to show a normal desktop website in a usable manner on a very low-resolution screen. Many organisations hacked their desktop websites to make them look a little bit better on these new devices. Some converted their WAP sites to true mobile-friendly versions of their desktop site.

Then the iPhone arrived. Generation 1 of the iPhone wasn't an amazing device compared to what we see today but it made reliable phone calls, it gave you a decent MP3 player, and it gave one of the best mobile browsing experiences when accessing websites designed for desktop browsers. This made it a massive leap forward and the death knell for the Windows mobile platform was sounding loud.

As 2008 rolled past we saw Android appear and there was now a second mobile platform that gave a fairly decent web experience.

Over the next 6 years, mobile devices started to take more and more market share. Somewhere around 2014, those devices achieved a level of parity with their desktop equivalents for consumers. Apps replaced sites as the primary means of interacting online and this drove more and more people to use their mobile device as their primary means of accessing information online. This, in turn, drove more people to use their mobile device for accessing websites.

We've now reached 2016, are rapidly approaching 2017, and the marketplace has changed. If your website doesn't work well on mobile devices you're helping your competitors. The time has passed where people will zoom and scroll around a page to read the information on it. There's always another Google result you can check out that may be more likely to work well on your device.

Now we have responsive design and for all intents and purposes it's a move back to the simpler pages we used to make in Geocities or AngelFire with the addition of Javascript and CSS frameworks to deal with all the niggly bits. We have some wonderful frameworks now such as Bootstrap, Foundation, and Angular that make designing or rebuilding a website with a mobile-first attitude a lot simpler than it was even just a few short years ago.

We'll finish with some figures to show just how much the world has changed. At the moment you're probably only missing out on about 20% of your market with a desktop-focussed website. Greater than 85% of the time spent on mobile devices is spent using applications such as Facebook and WhatsApp. However, it's worth noting that web traffic is, by volume, still a huge chunk of mobile use.

Mobile conversions to purchased products or services are still way lower than desktop conversions but I suspect a lot of that is because the purchasing experience on mobile is diabolical even when it has been tweaked a little for that platform. 

Purchasing systems currently still use a lot of the same design functionality that we've become used to on the desktop. If you want an example of an area where mobile conversions have been embraced and are successful you only have to look at in-game purchases on mobile to see that they account for a significant amount of revenue. It's not that people don't want to buy your product when they are on their mobile it is that it's often not as simple to proceed through the selection, booking, or checkout process as it is on a desktop browser.

We don't believe that mobile applications are a solution to this problem. 

Who wants to install an application for every single place you buy things from? 

Who, as a small to medium-sized business, wants to rewrite their application almost every time a new generation of devices is released? 

Those retail applications are going to be ruled by the Amazons and eBays of this world. Your focus is better spent on making the checkout process as integrated and simple as you can. The ultimate ideal would be to get it such that it's as simple as in-game purchasing (but in-game purchasing rarely requires a postal address or for you to enter credit card details).

A raw fact is, this 20% share of the retail market is only going to increase. The cat's out of the bag and it's not going back inside in a hurry.

So why should you be making sure your website works well on mobile devices?

For the exact same reasons you got a website in the first place. Your business is going to be subject to a declining market share if you don't.