Key Things to Consider When Building a Mobile Version of a Website


1. Define Your Need for a Mobile Site

Usually a mobile website design project comes about through one of the following circumstances:

  • It’s a brand new website in need of both a desktop and mobile strategy.
  • It’s a redesign of an existing website, which will include a new mobile site.
  • It’s an addition of a mobile site to an existing desktop site, which won’t be changing.

Each of these circumstances brings a different set of requirements, which will help you determine the best way forward as you consider the items discussed below.

2. Consider the Business Objectives

In most cases, you, as the designer/developer are being hired by a client to design a mobile site for their business. What are the business objectives as they relate to the website, specifically the mobile site? As with any design, you’ll need to prioritize these objectives, then communicate that hierarchy in your design. When translating your design to mobile, you’ll need to take this a step further and focus on just a couple of top priority objectives for the business.

Take the website for Hyundai as an example. If you load in a desktop browser, the first thing you’ll see are big, bold images that evoke an emotional connection to their vehicles. In addition, you see a robust navigation, callouts to various benefits of owning a Hyundai, site search and social media links.

Now load in your mobile browser and you have a stripped-down version of the website. Yet the most prominent feature is still the same: a relatively big image of their latest vehicle model, followed by several other (mobile-optimized) images of vehicles. You don’t see the complex navigation and other callouts in the mobile version. They chose to focus their mobile site on their primary business objective, which is to evoke an emotional connection with their cars through bold imagery.

3. Study the Data of the Past Before Moving Forward

If this project is a redesign (most web design projects are these days), or an addition of a mobile site to an existing website, hopefully the site has been tracking traffic with Google Analytics (or another metrics tracking software). It is wise to study the data before diving into design and development.

Analyze things like which devices and browsers your users are accessing the site from. While you want to be sure the site is built with device support in mind, you can target these browsers as high priorities when you go from design, through development, testing and launch. At this stage your web hosting service provider is very important.

4. Practice Responsive Web Design

With so many new mobile devices being released every year, the days of checking your site in a few web browsers and launching are over. You’ll need to optimize your site for a vast landscape of desktop and mobile browsers, each bringing a different screen resolution, supported technologies, and user-base. As recommended in the well-known article Responsive Web Design, you can craft the desktop and mobile site experiences simultaneously.

Utilizing the latest and most forward-thinking web technologies like HTML5, CSS3, and web fonts, you can design your site to scale and adapt to any device it’s viewed on. That’s what we call responsive web design.

5. Simplicity Is Golden, But …

As a general rule of thumb when converting a desktop site design to mobile format, you want to simplify things wherever possible. There are several reasons for this. Keeping file size and load times down is always a good idea for a mobile site. Wireless connections — while faster than years past — are still relatively slow, so the faster your mobile site loads, the better.

Usability considerations on the mobile web also call for a simplified approach to design, layout, and navigation. With less screen real estate at your disposal, you need to choose your placement of elements wisely. In short: Less is more.

However, we can still create beautiful designs that are optimized for mobile. CSS3 gives us an amazing set of tools for creating things like gradients, drop-shadows, and rounded corners, all without resorting to bulky images. That’s not to say you can’t use images at all.

Check out these examples of mobile sites that strike a great balance between simplicity and beauty.

6. Single-Column Layouts Usually Work Best

As you think about layout, a single-column structure tends to work best. Not only does this help with managing limited space on the smaller screen, it also helps you easily scale between different device resolutions and flipping between portrait and landscape mode.

Using responsive web design techniques, you can take a multi-column desktop site layout and adapt it to a single-column layout. The new Basecamp mobile website does a great job of this.

7. Vertical Hierarchy: Think in Collapsible Terms

Does your site have a lot of information that needs to be presented on the mobile site? A good way to organize things in a simple and digestible way is to set up a collapsible navigation. Taking your single-column structure a step further, you can stack chunks of large content in folding modules that allow the user to tap open the content that they’re interested in and hide the rest.

Check out the mobile site for Major League Baseball. At the top of the page is a button labeled “Teams.” Tapping this extends the page, listing the 30 teams vertically in the single-column page.

8. Go From “Clickable” to “Tappable”

On the mobile web, interaction is done via finger taps rather than mouse clicks. This creates a very different dynamic in terms of usability.

When converting from a desktop to mobile site design, you have to revisit your “clickable” elements — links, buttons, menus, etc. — and make them “tappable.” While the desktop web lends itself well to links with small and precise active (clickable) areas, the mobile web requires larger, chunkier buttons that can be easily pressed with a thumb.

In addition, on the mobile web there is no hover state. Most of the time, when something is set up to occur on hover (like a dropdown navigation menu), it actually occurs on the first tap when viewed on a mobile device. The second tap on the mobile site does what the first click does on the desktop site. This may cause confusion for mobile users, which means you’ll need to re-work hover states for mobile.

9. Provide Interaction Feedback

Speaking of interaction, you’ll need to make sure you provide obvious feedback for any actions that occur on the front-end of your mobile site.

For example, when the user taps a link or button, it’s good practice to have that button visually change states to indicate it has been tapped and the action has been initiated. It’s common to see a white-colored link turn fully blue on the iPhone when tapped. This visual feedback is familiar to most users and you’d be wise to take advantage of it.

Another good practice is to include loading states for actions which may take a bit longer to load. Use an animated loading image to indicate something is in progress. Basecamp Mobile does a great job of this by showing a spinning loading gif as it loads the next page.

Remember, the desktop browsers have various indicators built-in to show that something is in progress. Mobile browsers don’t make it as obvious, so it’s important to build visual feedback into your mobile site design.

10. Test Your Mobile Website

As with any project, you’ll need to test your mobile website on as many devices as possible. Without owning all these devices, it can be somewhat tricky to find ways to accurately test for each. It will involve a combination of installing the developer SDK for the platform (like the iPhone SDK and Android SDK) and using web-based emulators for viewing other mobile platforms.