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Should you build a mobile version of your Web site?

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The odds are pretty good that your mobile phone or PDA allows you to access the Internet. But, how do Web sites appear, do they look just like the site you see when using your PC or Mac, or do they take an age to load and then end up squashed or broken?

Does your Web site work on a mobile phone?

The answer is usually, "it depends on the site". It seems that some site owners go to great lengths to ensure that mobile and PDA users have the same experience on their site, whilst others tend not to worry about mobile users at all.

The current state of play

With the current range of 'smart phones' available, including the industry leading Apple iPhone, the new Palm Pre and Google's Android-powered HTC Magic, the mobile Web experience has jumped closer to the desktop PC or Mac.

Viewing a Web site on an iPhone, for example, means the user is accessing the site using a version of the Safari web browser, the browser that's installed on most Apple Mac desktop computers. The same can be said for the Palm Pre and the HTC Magic, both use fairly advanced web browsers, able to display a Web site almost as intended.

So, why build a mobile version of my site?

The main problems are caused by the size of the mobile phone. We all want to be able to carry our phones around, so they need to be pretty small. This means the screen is going to be around 80% smaller than the one sat on your desk (comparing a 17 inch monitor to a 3.5 inch iPhone screen - comparison screen shot below).

BBC News Site on 17 inch Monitor and iPhone

Certain Web sites displaying lots of information in image and text form will look cluttered and hard to read on a mobile phone or PDA, no matter how good the browser is. The smart phones listed above do offer zoom functions, but this still means lots of zooming in and out to find the information you need.

Other problems can come from a lack of media support. For example, most smart phones, mobiles and PDAs cannot display Flash animations. PDAs and smart phones fare better with video but most 'normal' mobile phones do not.

What's the 'best' solution?

If you're keen on providing the best user experience to people looking at your site on a mobile phone or PDA then currently you've got two main options.

1. Build two separate sites

You could go down this route but it's littered with problems. Firstly you'll need to create the two different versions of your site then decide where to point mobile users to, either: mysite.com/mobile or m.mysite.com or something similar.

Next, you need to make sure that you keep both sites updated. A mobile site can easily be forgotten and end up showing different content to that of its big brother. Keeping a mobile site bang up to date is often what keeps users loyal.

Finally, do you place a link to the mobile site from the main site or do you detect what device is being used and automatically send people using mobiles or PDAs to the mobile site? The second option is certainly much smoother but is there an even better option?

2. Build one Web site

The idea is that when you're at your desk on your PC or Mac, you'll see the large version of the site in all its glory. Then, when you switch to your mobile, PDA or smart phone, you'll see the same content optimised for a smaller screen. Same Web address, same content, but a different layout.

This sounds great but also quite complicated. But it doesn't have to be if done correctly. Using a piece of code that detects what device is being used to access the site (as mentioned above), a Web designer can make the appearance of a Web page change on a device by device basis without sending you to a different Web site.

Excellent, i'll take option 2 please...

But wait, this brings up another small problem which fortunately can be solved very simply. Some users prefer viewing a Web site in all its glory, not being sent to a cut down offering. The solution is to offer a way for the user to return to the full version of the site and to save that preference using a cookie. These options could be presented using a short paragraph of text:

We've detected you're using an iPhone so have delivered you to the version of our site that best suits your device. To return to the full version of the site click here, otherwise click here to disregard this message.

Sites such as eBay, Facebook, BBC News and Amazon all have mobile specific versions of their sites and most choose the 'one site' option. This does require a small amount of additional work up front but the main benefit is that there's only one site, keeping it up to date is far easier than trying to run two sites side by side.

Mobile applications, a third option?

As devices such as the iPhone become increasingly popular, some businesses have begun to invest in iPhone applications. These aplications, which can be downloaded in the Apple App Store, are not necessarily just iPhone versions of your Web site, but are usually additional ways of communicating with your customers, allowing them to log in to accounts, upload photos, create wish lists or even play games, etc.

Ocado, the online grocery ordering service, have recently launched an iPhone application called 'Ocado on the Go' which allows grocery orders to be placed directly from the iPhone. The screen shots below show the application home screen, main shop options and browsing though products.

'Ocado on the Go' iPhone Application

Whilst iPhone users could use the built in Safari Web browser to visit the main Ocado Web site and place their order, the iPhone application is far simpler to navigate when using a small screen.

Feel free to call us today (0845 058 9050) and chat with one of our consultants about the benefits of creating a mobile friendly site or an iPhone application.

Alternatively, fill out our contact form and somebody will get back to you.

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