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The Mobile Ecosystem - Challenges
Although mobile web technology is improving, developing robust user experiences on phones remains a serious challenge. This sub-section explores the hurdles of developing in the mobile environment, and offers basic workarounds for site builders. (The technical details for many of the workarounds discussed here are laid out in greater detail later in the guide.)
Most of the major mobile challenges revolve around usability. Usability refers to the ease with which users can interact with a web interface and accomplish specific tasks on a site. As usability expert Jakob Nielsen noted in a recent Albertbox report, currently "it's neither easy nor pleasant to use the web on mobile devices." Several limitations exist in the mobile environment, Nielsen notes, that lead to a less than ideal user experience. These include small screens, awkward device inputs, flaky internet connections, and poorly designed sites.
Below we highlight a few of these limitations and provide some practical solutions:
- Small Screens: The most significant limitation in phones is small screen size. Feature phones, which still make up the vast majority of the market, typically have a screen that's no larger than 2 inches, measured diagonally. Even the screen on the iPod is only 3.5 inches - considerably smaller than the average screen size for a netbook (10 in) or laptop (15 in). As Nielson notes, "small screens mean fewer visible options" are available on mobile displays. Small screens also leave little room for the types of navigation menus to which desktop users have become accustomed, such as top and left marginal navigation displays.
Solutions: To help improve legibility of sites on phones screens, developers should
- Use fonts that are designed for easy reading on a screen, such as Verdana.
- Keep margins and padding to a minimum to use all of the screen.
- Use a large enough font size to allow users to be able to comfortably read the content.
- Use short paragraphs: large paragraphs of text might work fine on a full site, but on a mobile device it helps to use more white space and keep paragraphs smaller. Testing of the site is needed to decide the right amount of white space versus the amount of scrolling required.
- Awkward Inputs: For users accustomed to working with a full keyboard and mouse, the mobile web is quite an adjustment. Scrolling through a webpage with phone buttons or a tiny trackball makes almost any task on the site more difficult. Even touch screens, which were developed to address the limitations of previous input devices, are less precise than a desktop mouse. Typing on mobile devices presents another major usability hurdle, especially when phones only have numeric keypads.
Solutions: Developers should limit the need to use input devices on sites.
- Simplify pages so that users do not have too many link options and make it clear to which links users are navigating.
- Sort out links by order of popularity - this ensures that most users won't have to scroll through many pages to reach their destination.
- Website forms should almost never be used on mobile sites, especially if a site's target audience is feature phone users. Instead of making users fill out a form or send an email, developers should utilize phone links that initiate a call to the legal aid office directly through the mobile device.
- Download Delays: Although web connections on mobile devices are improving, much of the current mobile network infrastructure was not built to support robust web usage. Mobile websites generally load much much slower than sites being delivered through home or office wire-line broadband connections. Connections are also more likely to drop as a page is downloading.
Solutions: To account for slow connections, developers should create lightweight sites that load quickly. That means only small images and relatively small portions of text of each page. The PTLA mobile site does an especially good job of keeping pages light to ensure fast load time. Programs that model their pages off the the PTLA project can ensure relatively quick load times for users.
Nielson also says that there are two major guidelines that any mobile web developer needs to follow when creating a mobile website:
- Design a seperate mobile website
- Have a clear, explicit link from the full site to the mobile site and vice versa.