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Here, we speak to Sergio Falletti, director of mobile app specialists Future Platforms about the challenges and opportunities of mobile website design.
Where is the mobile web on the user experience curve? Are brands still focusing on basic usability or are they looking more deeply into user-centred design?
I think at the moment, usability work is being driven by the suppliers, rather than being pushed by the clients. But we have done quite a few user-centred design projects for applications and services, including for trutap (a mobile social networking app), which was based on a series of workshops and processes to identify personas.
That sort of thing is much more established on the web side of things. But in a way, it’s even more worthwhile doing it for mobile development, as it can help shift clients’ perceptions of what they are trying to achieve.
Most people come at mobile from a very web-centric point of view and look at mobiles just as smaller screens that they have to fit the website into. Adopting a user-centric approach can help them look at things from a different angle and come up with some better ideas.
What types of companies are spending the most money on mobile at the moment?
There are quite a few people out there. There’s been a lot of activity on the VC side of things with people investing in mobile or mobile web plays. There’s a lot of land grab going on and companies are spending a lot of money on customer acquisition.
There’s also been a bit of growth in the mobile advertising space and the industry is moving on from SMS into second generation mobile sites and applications. That is, beyond WAP and into HTML and more adaptable, graphic sites.
How painful is the testing process when it comes to mobile and what are the cost implications of the wide array of networks, devices and screen sizes out there?
In terms of the techniques and methodologies, there’s not a lot of difference between mobile and web. But with mobile, the budgets are lower so sometimes user testing is done in situ. Depending on who you are working for, you can just ask people around the office to have a go on the site and just ask them a few questions.
As for costs, it depends on what the solution is. We focus on application development as much as mobile sites. When you work on configuring mobile applications, you are extremely aware of the different phone capabilities and screen sizes, more than when you are developing a mobile site. Device detection is always the first step. Most of the process is automated.
With applications, we tend to have ten to 15 different versions. In the case of mobile sites, we usually design them with low, medium and high resolution versions and use some automated adaptation when we are serving them out.
For brands looking to develop their mobile presence, would you advise them to recruit dedicated staff or use their existing online resources?
The technology is similar to the web – you could get a web developer and with a couple of months they would be able to do a good job.
But in a wider sense, sometimes the industry looks at mobile too much from a web perspective. It is an interesting question. I’m old enough to have been working when the internet started. The first thing I remember was seeing emails starting to come through from my work colleagues and thinking ‘Wow’. It was only a lot later that the web as we see it now came along.
SMS, in a way, is the email of the mobile world. Before the mobile web becomes huge, there is a good chance that smaller, more targeted applications will be the forebears of what is to come later. There is quite a lot happening that is very specific to the mobile space. The mobile web is only at the beginning and will grow as the technology improves and the services improve.
So if I were an e-commerce manager or marketing manager and was looking to launch a mobile service, I would get a few external people in that have experience in the mobile space, and do some user experience design rather than just trying to transcode your existing site. You will be likely to come up with something that works a lot better.
What’s happening in the area of analytics and measurement? What can you do to inform your development and design decisions for mobile apps or sites?
It depends on what the product is in a way. For large projects and products that are at the core of a company’s business, it happens through user comments in the beta process.
On the smaller scale, such as mobile micro-sites or campaigns, there is the beginning of interest. But there isn’t the kind of approach that Amazon takes when doing its validation online.
What’s your view on the recent row over Vodafone and transcoding? How has that affected your clients’ strategies and design work?
It has been a bit of a wake-up call for the industry and there has been a bit of a shockwave. There has been a lot of heated debate and ultimately it boils down to the old argument about One Web.
Ultimately, there will always be a long tail of sites that for various reasons will have not adapted themselves to the lowest common denominator of mobile devices. But there are also a growing number of brands that want an adapted version of their sites that goes beyond pure transcoding and into the usability and user experience side of things. You wouldn’t want to penalise their efforts.
In a way, it has been a useful process – everyone has learned a lot from it. I’m not sure other operators would do it in a rush.
Would you advise clients to consider diverting budget to mobile search yet? Are brands starting to look at mobile versions of their landing pages?
It is something that we are starting to think about. We see ourselves more as a mobile studio than an agency, so we’re not going to go into ad agencies and tell them what their mobile communications strategies should be.
But we have started to look at it for a few clients that are in the process of planning mobile sites rather than campaigns, and are starting to think about search as a route into those sites.
One example is BAA, whose brand is probably not as recognisable as those of its airports – many people wouldn’t go to BAA.com to find out what is happening in Gatwick, they would go to Google and search for ‘Gatwick’ and then go to BAA’s Gatwick website.
I haven’t heard of many people thinking about landing page optimisation for mobiles, but I’m sure the agencies are. It seems to be a natural progression. But when it comes to mobile, on-portal advertising seems to be the priority for brands in the short term.
Any thoughts on the iPhone's impact on mobile usability?
In general, the user interface is very impressive and it is definitely going to be picked up by other manufacturers. The controls give you a taste of the way things will go in the long term.
But I doubt the manufacturers are worried about it. In a sense, it is a little bit US centric and web centric for European tastes.
We will want to experiment with it but we would see it more as an R&D exercise, rather than a commercial opportunity.