How to respond to the new diversity

On top of the challenge of serving different audiences, corporate websites must now learn how to do so effectively across a range of devices, says Scott Payton.

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Siemens corporate mobile site

A former colleague project-managed one of the first magazines designed exclusively for the iPad. The designers working on the glitzy, big-budget publication regularly had to toil until dawn to meet their deadlines. But the need for these 24-hour shifts had nothing to do with taming the technology behind the magazine’s many videos, animations and interactive features. It was because every page of the magazine had to be designed and laid out twice: once for iPad users who wanted to read it in landscape mode; again for those who preferred portrait mode. The designers experimented with software that automated this process. But the editor insisted that the magazine looked not just adequate but perfect in both formats. This took double the time.

Corporate web managers might empathise with this problem, because they face a similar but bigger one: how to make their sites and apps look good and perform well on a diverging range of internet-enabled devices. There are, they know, ways of creating central stores of content that can be reconfigured for different screens – but the tough questions go well beyond this. How can they make both content and navigation appropriate for an ever-proliferating set of circumstances?

A world of access possibilities

Gone are the days when almost every website visitor sat in their home or office and used a mouse or track pad to navigate your site and a 13- to 20-inch (or thereabouts) monitor to view it. Now many use a smart phone with a 3.5-inch touch-screen instead; or a 10-inch tablet. Using these new tools, visitors can access your site from anywhere.

The differences don’t stop there. Some devices support Flash. Others do not. Navigation mechanisms that work well on a desktop computer – as mega dropdown menus can – are often almost unusable on a smart phone or tablet. Conversely, functions that can work brilliantly on a touch-screen device – like the ‘swipe’ navigation gesture – are simply impossible for those using a mouse. To complicate things further, different smart phones and tablets have different sets of physical buttons, some of which are designed to serve specific navigation purposes. As a result, a corporate app that works well on an Android device can be cumbersome on an Apple one and vice-versa.

The roll out snowballs

Serving online visitors well via multiple devices is not just a big problem; it’s also a growing one. Apple has already sold more than 55 million of the first and second-generation iPad – and is expected by many to unleash the third incarnation in March (2012). By 2015, more Americans will go online via mobile devices than via desktop computers, according to predictions from research house IDC. Siemens’ mobile site already accounts for 15 per cent of all visitors to the company’s corporate web presence.

Then there is the new thing this year: the predicted rise of internet-enabled televisions. Although video-on-demand is the most obvious use for these devices, they will be used to a greater or lesser extent for using websites and apps, too.

So what does this proliferation of delivery channels mean for corporate web managers? Here are some of the big content, navigation and design issues for those building mobile sites and corporate apps, as well as for those simply seeking to ensure that their main corporate site works as well as possible for every visitor.

Content

Providing appropriate material is no longer just about serving different audiences; it is also about serving these audiences in different places and situations.

From the smart phone user in a taxi to the iPad owner on an aeroplane, the rise of mobile devices means that people are accessing web sites in a wider range of locations than ever. The type and depth of the content they want from a company changes according to where they are and what they are doing. For example, smart phone wielding taxi passengers are likely to be looking for information that is either very useful (the address of their meeting), or very new (press announcements published since they left the office).

Either way, their time will be short and their screen will be small, so the briefer the information the better. iPad carrying air travellers might have more time, and will certainly have a bigger screen. So they are more likely to want to browse larger amounts of information – but possibly still not as much as they would if they were back at their desks. Whether companies choose to create a dedicated mobile site/corporate app, or to focus on making their main site mobile-friendly, careful editing and content selection choices need to be made with these fluctuating content requirements in mind.

Navigation

Providing mechanisms that work well for everyone is becoming increasingly difficult.

Most people use smart phones with one hand. Complicated menus and other tools will irritate them, even if they do display well on a small screen. iPad users are more likely to have both hands free. But mouseover menus can still be a nuisance on a touch-screen. We have seen examples of companies that have tried to build touch-screen navigation into their main corporate site alongside sophisticated navigation mechanisms designed for desktop users. The result? A frustrating experience for everyone.

Design

Stunning aesthetics are becoming a higher priority for tablet users but a lower one for those using smart phones.

Smart-phone users will forgive a site with basic design if it provides the information they want quickly and clearly. But iPad users won’t. They have a bigger screen and they have seen apps that look beautiful on it. That’s why the editor of that iPad magazine made his design team stay up all night getting everything perfect. Whether web managers choose to create a corporate app or simply optimise their site for tablets, the design bar has been raised.

All for the best

So how should web managers respond to these issues? For those with elastic budgets, one answer is to build a raft of mobile sites and apps designed to cater specifically for the needs and expectations of those using different devices. But for organisations with more modest resources, it can be a time of difficult choices. The safest option is to keep a close eye on who are your web site visitors, what they want from your site and in what types of situations, then make sure that your main corporate site provides a satisfactory experience on whatever device they are using. You might not be able to delight every member of your audience all of the time. But it should still be possible to meet their needs, via smart phone, tablet or even TV.

First published on 22 February, 2012