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As the number of handheld devices increase exponentially, knowing your end user is more important than ever.

Jun 21st, 2011 by Max Tokman

Now that smartphones, tablets, and other handheld devices have flooded the marketplace, companies expect their websites to be optimized for any and all of the devices that are being used to access the web.  This is sometimes necessary; Google and Bing need their search services accessible on all devices, Netflix needs their entertainment-based service accessible from all devices.  These are web-based enterprises whose function is to serve the online community.

But the majority of businesses on the web today are using it as a way to further their marketing and sales potential.  For these types of businesses, it’s crucial to understand who your client is, who the user is that will be accessing your site, how they will be accessing your site, and to what extent they will be interacting with it.  If 1% of your clients will be using a Blackberry to access your site, while 50% will be using an iPhone to access your site, would you want to pay the same amount of money to have your site optimized for the Blackberry as you are paying to have it optimized for the iPhone?  If you have an unlimited budget, have at it, but if you’re like most of us, you are going to need to be cautious when it comes to how you allocate your funds for your project.

What does it mean to optimize for a handheld device?  A common misconception is that any website will be reformatted perfectly when it’s accessed from a handheld device.  Yes, the website will be viewable in a scaled-down version.  However, the effectiveness of the navigation, font size, content layout, graphics, and interactivity will fall by the wayside.  Plus, Flash-based sites will not be viewable on any Apple products.

The first fact is that the user will be using a touch screen as opposed to the cursor of the mouse to navigate through your site, save a few exceptions such as the Blackberry.  Anything that was viewable at the tip of the curser is now hidden beneath the tip of your finger.  Also, load time on handheld devices is typically dramatically slower than load time on your desktop browser.  This means that you would want to minimize the site navigation depth as much as possible.

The user should not have to scroll horizontally to view content, only vertically.  All text should be the appropriate size.  The user should never have to strain their eyes to read what's on their small screen.  Modify the fonts you use for easiest reading on their small screen.  The user should never have to magnify the screen or modify the size of it.

You would want to structure the mobile site based on its purpose, more so than on strong aesthetics.  To the dismay of many designers, a simple design for your mobile site is often much more effective than something with complex, multi-column layouts which don't present well on small screens.  Stack structural components vertically with one column; even two columns may be pushing it.  The goal would be to minimize the time that it takes users to find the information that they’re desiring or the tasks that they’ll need to perform.  Reduce the number of steps necessary to have the user work with your content quickly and easily. 

The design needs to be deployed to make most effective use of the small screen of the specific device that the user is using to access your site.   If it’s your impeccable designs that you’re selling, then you’ll need to design for each platform that you’d like your client to have access to.  Just as we here at OSS will always program a site with the necessary functionality for a specific handheld device and not just the desktop browser, you should never expect the integrity of your design to be upheld across devices.  You should design with the size of the screen and pixels in mind.

Is there ever going to be programming that offers some perfect transition from desktop browser to handheld device?  That perfect code has yet to be written.  However, when and if that time comes, this argument will still hold water.  The landscape would continue to fragment after that perfect code has been fashioned. Company after company will try to re-reinvent the wheel to create the next piece of handheld technology that sets themselves apart from the crowd--something which will require brand new scripting and brand new designs.

150 years ago, the telegraph was the revolutionary piece of technology.  It was said that "no other invention has exercised a more beneficent influence on the welfare and happiness of the human race." (A Popular History of the United States of America, by John Clark Ridpath) Now, smartphones and handheld devices are considered by many to be on the precipice of revolutionary technology.  When the iPhone first came to market, it was said that it has "changed the world of communication, and also brought with it an overall access to knowledge that is unmatched in human history."  (Technology blog, dmacrye.com) To me, the same notions are being discussed, it’s just the devices themselves that have changed.  Technology will continue to upgrade and change and morph in size and in functionality, and we that work with these technologies will continue to follow suit.

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