December 19, 2008

You Can't Afford to Lose Mobile Readers

By Daniel J. Pritchett of Sharing at Work (FriendFeed/Twitter)

The continued market growth of iPhones, Netbooks, Blackberries and other tools make mobile browser support more and more important.  Here’s a quick thought experiment for you: If you’re running site analytics, look and see how many of your viewers run a resolution lower than 800x600.  Nearly 6% of all visitors to this site are using these low-resolution devices.  Most of them are using the 320x396 screen of the iPhone and iPod touch family.

Respected publisher and all-around media thinker Tim O’Reilly insists that the tipping point has come“… if we're trying to get ahead of the curve, we need to think first about the phone, and then think about the PC browser experience as the add-on.”  Google blogger Matt Cutts succinctly demonstrates the worst-case scenario in mobile browsing:  If you’ve got a flash-only site, those iPhone users are just going to surf around you without a second thought.  Can you afford to lose them?  Not for long.How your site could be frustrating mobile usersGreat, so you’re now committed to making your site as mobile friendly as possible!  You’ll need to understand some common frustrations mobile users encounter when viewing sites and how to deal with them.  I’ll list the ones I’ve picked up in my years of browsing on handheld devices:

Load time:  Many contemporary blogs include third-party (such as this site and my own) include sidebar widgets, third party commenting systems, animated subscriber counts, and plenty of other things that load off-site.  You’re also likely to see an image or three in every post because images are known to increase user interest in reading posts.

Readability: Pile all of the widgets into a layout that’s designed to be read at 1024x768 or higher and you’ll find that you’re seriously taxing the bandwidth and processing power of the average mobile phone.

Navigation: Each mobile device has its own sacrifices in terms of navigation.  The iPhone’s multitouch screen makes zooming and resizing easy but iPhone users sorely miss a real live tactile keyboard.  You won’t find many iPhone/iPod users willing to type out more than a few lines at a time.  Other phones like the T-Mobile G1 have real keyboards but no multitouch.  The lowest common denominator of phones (that are going to be browsing at all) is probably something like my Motorola RAZR.  The RAZR lets me flip through lo-fi pages using the equivalent of a five-key keyboard: up, down, left, right, enter.Start making your blog mobile friendly today!If you’re here to learn how to make your blog more mobile friendly, you’re in luck.  The relatively simple format of most blogs – one post at a time in chronological order – lends itself well to the task of adding a mobile layout.  Here are a few of the more common blogging platforms and tips on how to “mobile-ize” them:
  • WordPress has a series of plugins that will ease the process for you.  I use MobilePress and WPTouch.  Beware that you’ll have trouble integrating WPTouch alongside the popular WP Super Cache plugin. 
  • Blogger doesn’t have the plugin architecture WordPress does, so you’ll have to either work a lot harder or settle for less in terms of mobile supoport.  Intersquash will “iPhoneize” any site that has an RSS feed at no charge.  Here’s the Intersquashed iPhone-friendly version of  You’ll notice that Intersquash shows only the latest items on a feed.  This won’t help a mobile reader who comes to your site looking for an older article. 
  • Tumblr has a dead-simple “mobile” feature – access it by adding “/mobile” to the end of your tumblog’s URL.  Check out the mobile view on Fred Wilson’s tumblog for a nice example.  The only complaint I have about Tumblr’s mobile support is that it strips out any customization you’ve done, such as adding the ability to comment on your posts via DISQUS or IntenseDebate.
Where should we go next? Now that we’ve started on the road towards making our sites more mobile friendly, let’s plan out our next steps.  At my blog I’ve noticed that the MobilePress and WPTouch themes put a great face on my posts, but they ignore a lot of my favorite user convenience features.  My “Share this” widget and the “related posts you might enjoy” plug-in don’t appear for mobile browsers.  It would be great to get more of these features supported by the mobile “face” of our sites.  Maybe I can track down the authors of some of these plug-ins and see what we can do!

Perhaps more important is the question of providing accessibility to the disabled.  How easily will blind or deaf visitors be able to read your content and navigate your site?  They’ll likely come armed with a few tools of their own to aid them in reading your posts but they surely deserve at least as much of your time and consideration as do iPhone users.  I personally have not yet looked into this on my blog, but I feel I ought to make it my next task.  The World Wide Web consortium has a Web Accessibility Initiative to point us in the right direction.  Good luck, and thanks for reading!

Read more by Daniel J. Pritchett at Sharing at Work