June 13, 2013

Do you know how many people are using a mobile device to look at your website? The answer is: lots.

Since the smartphone explosion a couple of years ago, I’ve always thought that about 5% to 10% of website traffic comes from mobile devices, i.e. a significant amount but not enough to get too excited about.

I’m giving a presentation on the mobile web experience at a conference in Auckland next week, so this week I’ve been having a look through Google Analytics data from a lot of our clients’ websites to see how important mobile traffic has become. Sometimes when you look at some hard data you give yourself a serious reality check.

I’ve looked at the traffic reports for 15 different sites over the month of May 2013 and the results are pretty staggering. Or should I say, horrific, if you haven’t got a site that looks good and works well on a mobile device.


The stats tell me that the proportion of mobile traffic across these sites ranges from 9% to 52%, with an average of 25%. Only one site out of the 15 I looked at had less than 10% mobile traffic.

These websites are from a range of industry sectors, and range in size from small owner-operators to large publicly funded organisations. So I’m pretty sure this is a representative sample.

This means we have a lot of tiny screens to deal with.

Most websites have been built with a fixed width of about 1000 pixels, so they look great on a desktop computer. But not on a tiny screen. The mobile user has to scroll not only up and down, but from side to side as well – and pinch to zoom to read the tiny text. I’m sure you know how annoying this is.

  • These tiny screens also don’t use a mouse, so hover states and drop downs don’t work.
  • Images can look tiny, huge, or pixellated.
  • Links are usually too small to be selected accurately by a user’s chubby fingers.
  • Flash usually doesn’t work on mobile devices either – so all those millions of sites built in Flash have been rendered unusable. And that’s not just an Apple problem – I bought an Android phone recently and it doesn’t work with Flash either. When I went to the Adobe site to download Flash, it said I needed Flash to view the page. So I didn’t bother…

So we appear to have a big problem here. Let’s look at this logically:

1. For nearly all sites, a very large proportion of their visitors are using mobile devices.

2. Nearly all sites look bad and are hard to use on mobile devices.

Therefore, a very large number of websites look bad and are hard to use for a lot of their visitors, a lot of the time. Which sucks!

But this isn’t the first time our industry has been confronted with a problem like this.

First, some history…

Traditionally, one of the biggest hassles for web designers has been making sure a website looks great across different browsers. Until the last couple of years, the same website could look wildly different depending on the browser you were using to look at it, unless you knew the tricks of the trade – the browser hacks and workarounds that individual web designers found out the hard way and shared with each other. The reasons for the differences and quirkiness included corporate greed on the part of software companies, rapid development of propietary technologies, and an escalating war between the main players as they sought to load more and more features into their browsers.

This annoying lack of common browser standards gave rise to the Web Standards Project. Due to the outstanding work of thousands of volunteers on projects like the WaSP, most browser manufacturers have now seen the light and have settled on a common set of standards. The Web Standards Project has even gone so far as to declare the standards war over: http://www.webstandards.org/2013/03/01/our-work-here-is-done/.

Older browsers like IE6 and IE7 have almost gone the way of the dodo and modern web-compliant browsers have replaced them (even Microsoft is wishing that IE6 would die now – http://www.ie6countdown.com/).

So designing websites for PCs is much easier these days.

Fast forward to 2013…

Now we have a new problem.  Instead of non-compliant browsers that occasionally break a website’s layout, we have about a billion smartphones in the world that just flat-out refuse to play nicely with traditional PC-based websites.

So what? They still work on PCs, don’t they?

Newsflash: Not everyone in the world uses a PC. This is a great article about how most of the world’s population has never owned a PC and probably never will. Just as almost the entire developing world skipped landlines and went straight to cellphones, most new Internet users will skip PCs and go straight to smartphones and tablets. Some of the hottest new companies are making uber-cheap smartphones and tablets for the billions of people who are only just coming online, while traditional PC makers like Dell and HP are haemorrhaging money.

OK, fine. What am I supposed to do with my website?

The future of the Internet is mobile and you don’t need to be a genius to see that your website needs to work well for mobile users.

You can do a number of things about it. Here are some words you might recognise: app, lite site, mobi site, responsive. Later we’ll talk about what’s right for you and, more importantly, your audience.