Posted by Mark Reeves

I’ve been describing what I call the “mobile imperative” for a few years now. The mobile user experience is not an add-on. We need to deliver websites that will hold up for a few years’ time, that should work on today’s devices and those we haven’t yet seen.

As the distinction between the Web on desktop and mobile continues to blur, supporting mobile is increasingly becoming second nature, but there are still additional costs: design enhancements at multiple breakpoints, testing across a wide gamut of devices, defining and maintaining media queries with associated CSS or JavaScript, perhaps even a distinct mobile-oriented website. Although we can easily declare that mobile is important, justifying the exact value is not quite as easy.

Any decision you make – whether to have a responsive website, to have separate mobile and desktop websites, or not to worry about mobile at all – will be based on your unique business needs. We’ve found, though, three common ways in which we can discuss the value of mobile.

1. By the Numbers

When trying to make the case for anything, data and statistics are your clearest and most objective tool. Fortunately, the Web is an incredibly measurable medium, and a ton of data exists on usage behavior and adoption rates.

Here are a few recent stats I’ve been citing:

The evidence is clear: The shift to mobile is well underway. As important as the Web is to any business or institution, mobile is the Web and is just as important.

2. Return on Investment

It’s all too common today for marketing budgets to be cut based on other shifts in the industry or business and fresh funds may not be available until next year’s budget.

But an up-front investment in a sustainable, future-friendly website (like the one we recently built for AS&E) will decrease the likelihood that it will need to be redesigned or reworked in a year. The goal of responsive Web design is not to create five different designs at five different dimensions. The goal is to establish a fluid, flexible design system that will adapt to different contexts. Today, those contexts are screens on mobile devices and desktop monitors. In a year or two, those contexts might be embedded screens in refrigerators, TVs or Google Glass. Future-friendly responsive design seeks to anticipate the unknown and reduce the need for additional work every time something new hits the market.

If cost truly is a factor, consider what constraints you can impose on the design process to keep things in check. What sort of tools can you leverage to minimize effort? Responsive front-end frameworks, such as Zurb Foundation and Twitter Bootstrap, may be a great option in this scenario.

3. Social Impact

Consider that Internet access is fast becoming a basic right and necessity in modern society. According to Pew Internet, 17% of all US mobile-phone owners “go online mostly on [a] cell phone.” In developing countries and on other continents, mobile phones may be the general population’s only means of accessing the Internet.

When we look at the migration of content and tasks onto the Web — job postings and applications, breaking news and weather alerts, healthcare records, social networks — accessibility is about more than screen reader software. It’s about access to the Internet, and for more and more people, the Internet is a small screen. We need not only to support interactions on mobile screens, but to ensure content parity. Supporting mobile is too often done by stripping out content. But omitting content to fit a smaller screen is not equal access — it turns mobile users into second-class citizens.

Mobile Is An Opportunity

Future-friendly, mobile first — these aren’t trite buzzwords. They represent a shift towards building websites that are accessible and intuitive for users, while being sustainable and profitable for businesses. We have the opportunity and incentive now to create websites that are platform-agnostic, that allow content to reflow and shift to fit different contexts and that can adapt to dramatic shifts in user behavior over time.

At the same time, we have more work to do. Quality assurance across multiple devices, better up-front planning, and coding for multiple design breakpoints all add layers of time and effort to a standard website build. We’re always working toward finding and adapting to a new design process and using it efficiently.

The key to any mobile project is to understand the goal before focusing on the specifications. More often than not, by adjusting the scope and expectations, by seeking out options that fit the budget and requirements, by understanding the true value, we can deliver victories big and small in our projects and do our part to move the Web forward.

Mark Reeves is the founder of Clearbold, one of White Rhino's trusted web development partners. Mark has worked on websites, content management and marketing platforms for the Campbell Soup Company, Lexmark, the NYSE, Cadillac, ESPN, MINI USA, Fidelity Investments, Massachusetts General Hospital and SAP. He publishes the Clearbold Newsletter and has written for Smashing Magazine.


Topics: Technology, Strategy, Experts