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Mobile web browsing is on the rise

Last month I attended Socitm’s “Learning from Better connected” event in London – a conference reporting on the key findings from the annual survey of all UK local authority websites. As a (new) member of the team behind the survey, I had been asked to present our findings in relation to using council websites on mobile devices. I was delighted by how many folk turned up for my two sessions, showing how many councils are clearly already thinking about mobile and what it means for their web offering.

Here’s a summary of what I talked about. You can also see my full presentation via the above link.

Facts and figures

I kicked off with a barrage of facts and figures to hopefully give the audience a clear understanding of how important mobile is fast becoming…

92% of UK adults personally own/use a mobile phone, and 39% of them use their mobile handset to access the internet (source: OFCOM)

Average time spent accessing the internet via a mobile browser in the UK was 9.5 hours per user per month (source: comScore)

64 per cent of smartphone owners access the internet on their smartphones at least once a day (source: Google)

Estimated 24m smartphone users – nearly 38% of the population. By 2016, projected to rise to 41.9m – practically two-thirds of the population (source: eMarketer)

Mobile users now account for around 23% of visits to council websites (source: Socitm Web Take Up Service)

Nearly one-third of page views in the UK are from mobiles and tablets (source: comScore)

It is predicted that by next year mobile internet will overtake desktop internet usage globally… it already did so in India back in May 2012

Last year’s mobile data traffic nearly 12 times the size of the entire global internet in 2000 (source: Cisco)

Users now more likely to use their mobile to email someone, rather than call them (source: Adobe – Digital Publishing Report 2013)

Mobile service providers predicted to make more from data usage than from voice calls by next year (Source: GSMA)

13% of the UK population have a tablet 66% have made a purchase from their tablet (source: IPSOS Mori)

Over 6m Britons have both a smartphone and tablet (source: comScore)

90% use multiple devices to accomplish an online goal (source: Google)

Expanding on that last fact:

Graphic showing how consumers move between multiple devices to complete online tasks

I think this last point is really interesting when considering your mobile presence. Imagine a user starting a task on your desktop (for example, looking up how to pay council tax) and then they return later, on a different device, to finish the job (e.g. to actually pay council tax). If the experience is radically different to their first encounter, could that be confusing?

Mobile options

With those thoughts in mind, I moved on to talk about how we’d identified three broad categories of “mobile solution” on council websites…

Separate mobile site

oldhamEasily identified because the user is bounced (usually either automatically or following a prompt) to a separate mobile-optimised website.

Pros

  • Experience customised for “mobile” users
  • Relatively cheap and quick to develop
  • No need to install an app – it’s just another website

Cons

  • A second site to maintain (although there are ways to automatically share content from your main site to reduce this burden)
  • Risk of leaving out content – a real problem on many of the mobile sites we encountered
  • Still difficult to cater for all devices

Mobile template

haringeyThis broad term actually covers a variety of techniques which, generally speaking, mean that you get the same website but presented in a different way, depending on certain factors such as screen size.

Pros

  • Only one site to maintain
  • No need to install anything
  • Responds to multiple devices using general principles, so potentially more future-proof

Cons

  • Can be complex to develop
  • Can’t use the device features
  • Web based, so not available offline

Native apps

scc-iphone-appEasy to spot as they require you to download from an app store.

Pros

  • Persists on device once downloaded (e.g. as an icon)
  • Can access the device functions – camera, GPS etc
  • Can provide superior usability
  • Can often be used (in some capacity) offline

Cons

  • Very costly to develop across platforms
  • Relies on “gatekeeper” app stores
  • Apps rarely downloaded or used frequently – in fact, a large percentage of native apps are only ever used once before being uninstalled

I forgot to say during my session, but it’s well worth reading the GDS’s blog post “We’re not ‘appy” which talks more about native apps and designing for mobiles.

Be wary of making assumptions about your mobile users

Having gone through the options, I then challenged some of the common assumptions we sometimes see around “mobile” browsing. The main point being that the only thing we really know about mobile users is that they’re using a mobile device.

For example, how mobile is mobile anyway? We’re seeing more and more households whose main (or only) access to the web is via a mobile device. If I’m laying in bed using my mobile device, I’m not exactly mobile.

Also, even if I am “on the move”, it doesn’t necessarily mean I’m “in a hurry”. I’m writing this post during a 5-hour train journey. I’ve got a mobile phone and iPad both connected to the wifi, but I’m in no rush. It’s flawed to assume that mobile users are all rushing around in the street with no time to read anything and trying to complete tasks as quickly as possible. And speaking of streets – even if we roughly know a user’s location, it doesn’t mean they’re only after location-specific info or tasks.

So by all means think about the physical and technical constraints of the devices that people are using, but be wary of second-guessing what they want from your website without some decent user research.

Factors that might increase mobile visits

polarbear

Bad weather can catch anyone out

Mobile usage will vary depending on a huge variety of factors: your local demographic, local or national news, events, politics, time of day, and even (or rather, especially) the weather! During severe weather, local authorities generally see a big increase in web visits, as residents come looking for info about service disruptions. You can also expect to see your mobile visits leap, for some very good reasons:

  • Speed – few people have time to fire up their clunky old desktop PC in the morning, just to see if their local school is open
  • On the move – during severe weather (or similar disruptions) we know that people are more likely to want up-to-date info whilst on the move, for example, checking road closures on the way to work
  • Power cuts – seriously severe weather is often accompanied by black-outs, which suddenly makes mobile the only option for some!

Think “Mobile First”

Next tip – when designing a mobile experience, keep it short and sweet. BUT don’t just see it as an exercise in hiding certain elements and content on your desktop site. Every bit of content that goes on your site should be earning its keep – if it’s not necessary on the mobile version, why is it needed on the desktop version? Or, if it’s truly vital on the desktop version, why deprive mobile users of it?

During the Better connected survey, we actually found more than a few sites which had no dedicated mobile offering, but which still passed the standard because their desktop site was simple enough to navigate and use on a mobile device regardless. Clear, concise content, with a strong focus on top tasks, will always benefit all users.

What else we found

BC13-mobileBetter connected 2013 was the first year that the websites’ performance on mobile devices was factored into the final rating, with a new “mobile” standard for those who passed our tests. 67 sites passed the new standard – just 15%. Not great, but I’m optimistic that we’ll see this number leap up next year.

What we liked:

  • Sites which loaded quickly – not too many graphics
  • Prominent contact phone numbers throughout the site
  • Task-orientated design rather than focusing on news or events
  • Simple online forms which were easy to complete on a small screen, without needing to enter too much data
  • When sent to the mobile site, a clear link back to main website
  • Good promotion of alerts

What we disliked:

  • Too much text, too many pictures.
  • Drop-down menus which are hard to select from
  • Key content on right-hand side of the screen, requiring side scrolling
  • Key info buried in PDFs
  • Requiring an account to complete a form
  • Use of complex maps which don’t work properly
  • Apps not well promoted (often only found via Google!)
  • Links too close together to be easily selected (this can be a problem for users on a PC too)

I’ll be leading further discussion on this subject at next month’s Building Perfect Council Websites 2013 event in Birmingham, so I’ll hopefully see some of you there to hear about what you’re up to with mobile.

Image of man with mobile by C Grenier and shared under the Creative Commons licence.

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