Why there’s no going wrong with mobile

Corporate use of the mobile web is still in such an early stage of development that there are no norms with which to conform, David Bowen says.

Featured sites

Siemens m.siemens.com Eni
McDonald’s mobile.mcstate.com Vodafone vodafone.mobi
Shell Cisco m.cisco.com
Qualcomm m.qualcomm.com/ IBM m.ibm.com/us/en/
Hewlett-Packard m.hp.com Microsoft m.microsoft.com
Walmart Stores m.walmartstores.com Intel m.intel.com
Google m.google.com France Telecom
Wells Fargo m.wf.com

The most striking thing I heard at our recent conference came from Florian Hiessl, who runs Siemens’ corporate site. He said that its mobile version, launched in March 2009, already has 10 per cent of the traffic of the main site, without any cannibalisation effect. Mobile web has been the technology of tomorrow for several years – maybe tomorrow has finally arrived.
Trying to spot the companies with mobile sites among the 75 companies that make up the FT Index is not an easy job but, excluding pure online banking sites, I found 15. Even if I missed some, we are a long way off mobile web becoming universal, but we are moving in the right direction. There was a time was when the view held that the iPhone would mean companies did not need a dedicated mobile site. I think that is passed: there is no comparison on usability (though ‘apps’ could, of course, be another story).
Looking through these sites, one thought kept coming back – this is a very immature field. The almost total lack of consensus on how anything should be done smacked of the web, or social media, in the earliest days. Good news for people who like experimenting.
The variation comes in four main areas: how the sites are identified; what the sites are about; size; how navigation is handled.

No common identity

The most common URL is m.groupname.com, but some use the top-level domain .mobi while others (France Telecom comes to mind) insist you put the main site’s address into your mobile browser, and it will recognise it.
The little sites tend not to be very visible on Google (which is why I found them hard to spot), so it makes sense to do what you can to publicise them – as Siemens does on its home page and Eni does at the top of every page.

No consensus on content

Five of the 15 mobile sites are strictly corporate, four are aimed only at customers and six have a mix of targets. The sites with corporate information ranged from purely investor (Shell) to purely press (Walmart Stores). McDonald’s Mcstate site is not really a corporate site, but it does have an excellent job-finding mechanism covering the US.
Even among the IT giants, who have been playing with mobile for longer than most, there is a lack of consensus: Microsoft has a big customer site, Intel has a small one, while Cisco, Qualcomm, IBM and Hewlett-Packard all provide a mix of corporate and customer material.

No size fits all

IBM and Cisco stand out for having substantial operations on the mobile web, with a mass of product, service and corporate content as well as links to full-featured country sites. Hewlett-Packard lists many countries on its home page but is much more limited inside: news and ‘offers’ (which did not work when I tested the site).
Siemens is another pretty substantial site, with good product and corporate information, though for real detail it either hands across to the main site (with a warning) or asks for an e-mail address – it will then send documents or links you can check on a big computer. The only company that out-sophisticates it on this is Qualcomm, which offers to send the links by SMS as well as e-mail.

No agreed way to go

There is a broad consensus that the place to put links is at the bottom of the page. But beyond that I found huge variation. Some sites (Walmart) have nothing more than a ‘home’ link, others list the primary sections. Further features are a search box prominent on the home page (Cisco) and at the top of each page (Qualcomm), while Siemens goes against the footer tendency by relying on a breadcrumb trail (this works well). Cisco also offers shortcuts keys (for example, #) to jump to the local and main home page: useful for phones with a keyboard.
Another feature I like is IBM’s home page, which uses + signs to expand different menus – as it is easy to get back to the home page, it is a useful navigation hub.
I must also give a special mention to the McDonald’s site, which is held together by a consistent menu and has the only ‘Back to French fries’ link I have ever seen.

Continuity of characteristics

Sadly, some of the problems that dog the main sites continue on the mobile versions.
Google, Microsoft and Apple have websites that are more like loose federations of sites, mirroring particular issues arising from their highly decentralised structures. Look at Microsoft’s mobile site, and you will find the same. The home page has a useful menu, but once you have gone to the Xbox section there are no links back. The Hotmail section does have a link to the home page, but not, as Xbox does, a local menu. Same in other parts: the mini-site is as tortuous to navigate as its big brother.
The one area where there is not a great deal of variation is in look and feel. Most mobile sites go for usability over excellence and few try to follow the main site. One that does – bravely or foolishly – is Qualcomm. This is particularly surprising as the big site has one of the most unusual looks in the Index, with a ‘jigsaw’ effect on the home page. Even more surprising, it works pretty well on a miniaturised scale.
There must be some convergence over the next few years on what a mobile site is for. But while there is not, have a go and try something different – there is no such thing as wrong.

First published 14 July, 2010
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