The Web as Intended

Created: Thursday, 24 July 2008 Written by Gary Elsbernd Print Email

One of the podcasts I listen to - Boagworld by Paul Boag - had an interesting feature this week about context - about how where we are influences what we want from a website. Paul listed five contextual considerations for developing for the web; Environment, Device, Comfort, Mood, Time.  He makes good points about them, especially the lack of traditional input tools on most mobile devices, but doesn't go far enough into motivations.  This tied into many things I've been thinking about with the release of the 3G iPhone.

Like most people, 99% of my browsing is done from a laptop or desktop sitting on a desk.  For these times, traditional websites are fine, and even optimized for the experience.  I have an expectation that I can browse, dig deeper and see layouts on a computer with high-bandwidth, full browsers and plugins and a high-resolution, large screen as they were intended by the designer. From design to implementation to interaction, everything about the web browsing experience has been optimized for my viewing pleasure in a relaxed setting.

My mobile surfing experience has been on a Palm Treo.  The screen is much smaller, the input is more awkward (no mouse) and the speeds are much, much slower. When I surf on my phone, I generally need specific information such as an address, geocache description or a sports score. The experience is much different in many ways, and not just that the hardware is less capable and I may be outside.  I also want to use the mobile for different things.

When you are at a desk, you have the opportunity to browse.  The idea of "surfing the web" came from the idea of skimming the top of the ocean of information, going where the wave takes you and finding things through serendipity.  When you are mobile, you are much more targeted on a specific need.  I don't want to look at a company's brochures or product demos on a phone.  I don't need all of your pretty branding and themes if I am browsing over a 3G or Edge network. There is a greater sense of urgency and focus.

The solution used to be a WAP (wireless access protocoal) site that is optimized for the mobile browsing platform - it has scaled back images, floats into a narrow column that can be read on a 320x240 screen, and has large links and buttons for tapping.  A good example is ESPN for getting game scores and play-by-play: http://wap.espn.com/ You can within three clicks find any college football game on a Fall Saturday and watch see short play-by-play descriptions on an automatically refreshed page.  On a regular computer, the interface is hideous compared to what we've been led to expect, but on a phone, the load times are lightning quick, and interactions and decision points are crisp, getting you where you want to go quickly and with a minimum of fuss. Compare this with their regular doorway of http://www.espn.com/. The mobile site features next to none of the graphics, advertisements and animations of the website.  It allows you to dig deeper into the stories you want to see, but leaves out many of the feature stories and options that wouldn't translate to the mobile web.  ESPN knows what their mobile users want and how that differs from what they want when they sit down at a computer, and delivers.

The iPhone and the new 3G iPhone started to change the thinking around mobile browsing.  Having the Safari browser installed and their zoom features lead developers to think there is no longer a need for a WAP.  Users can browse their entire traditional site on their phone, so we don't have to change a thing.  The missing factor in this equation is still intent.

In my work in the insurance industry, I have often wanted to develop a WAP application, to see how it's done and experiment.  The problem is, no one wants to work on their insurance while they're mobile.  Reviewing insurance is a more reflective task, requiring paperwork, comparisons and details that cannot be easily supported in 320x240.  I will find a way to do this, as our sales force is mobile, but other than basic communications covered by email, twitter, SMS and actual phone calls (do phones still make phone calls?), I haven't found the killer application yet that is targeted, a short duration, requires minimal entry and can be done without a lot of reference materials at hand.

Give me time.