With the adoption of mobile devices on a staggering rise, web designers need to adapt their thinking to the new mediums, because Marshall McLuhan’s revolutionary revelation is more important than ever.
Marshall McLuhan’s 1964 book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, coined the phrase “the medium is the message”, setting one of the cornerstones of modern media theory. In it, he argued, users will focus on the content of the medium, rather than the medium itself, rendering them oblivious to the changes – societal, religious, cultural, etc. – that such a medium brings.
It is a well-established fact that mobile devices – smartphones, tablets, other internet-capable devices – are on an exponential rise in terms of adoption numbers. There are now more mobile devices on this planet, than there are humans. This was a fact for over 30 countries back in 2006. That list has since grown to encompass the United States and my home, Canada. The Android Market just celebrated it’s 10 billionth download.
But, this growth is not anything new; this growth has continued unimpeded for the better part of a decade. However, it is how it is applied to web designers that is changing.
The “Medium” and Web Designers; An Experiment
Whenever I start a new project, large or small, my first question to the client is “Who is your target audience?” A project will take on a completely different feel if they are targeting 18-35 years olds versus the 35-60 bracket.
For our little experiment here, let’s say we are building a new website for a local vendor of baked goods. Their target audience is anyone with “disposable income”; to put a number on it, let’s say the target age bracket is 13-60. Five years ago, as a web designer, we would put together a simple design, likely optimized for a 1024px-width screen (990px), make the site SEO-friendly and call it a day. There wasn’t much more to a client project than that.
With the rise of mobile devices and the advent of Responsive Design, not to mention the consumption methods of our fake target audience, web designers are now forced to completely rethink how they approach the design process.
At the forefront of the process should be a consideration of mobile devices: how will a site display on a small-width screen; will users expect additional functionality; how do users search on a mobile device; content hierarchy; advertising space. All of these factors contribute to the mobile experience of a user on our pretend baking site. Each should be considered in turn.
Displaying On A Small Screen
Although new to the game, I am a big proponent of Responsive Design. It allows you to create a single HTML codebase to support devices ranging from a 27″ desktop monitor to a 320px-wide iPhone 3. Say goodbye to mobile-dedicated websites and tablet-exclusive content areas. The biggest advantage? It makes your website “future-proof” by allowing it to display properly on devices you didn’t even plan for.
Mobile users expect certain features that don’t apply to web design, and our job as the bakery website designer, is to provide them with the best experience possible. The most obvious inclusion, especially if image galleries are to be included, is swiping. The simplest way I have found thus far, is to include a 3KB library called WipeTouch. This very simple jQuery library allows users on mobile devices to provide an action to a site with the swipe of their finger. Mobile users also expect an easier interface, a simplified design. This could mean larger buttons for links, calls to action and social sharing, or something else entirely, depending on the design our bakery is aiming for.
Searching on Mobile
With mobile search growing at a 400% clip, the inclusion of it into any site is essential. It’s not just essential, it may be the focus of the bakery’s tablet site, especially if they include a blog or daily update. While desktop users seem to be ok with a small search box tucked away into some corner of your site, it seems mobile users expect the opposite. The ability to search a site should be front and center, allowing baked-goods to be found at will.
On our responsive bakery site, we need to still consider if what we want to be front and center, remains front and center. Different devices are used for different things, so our site should scale to meet these needs. At the very least, consideration should be given to how mobile users interact with sites in general and then applying that knowledge to our bakery:
With an increase in numbers comes an increase in advertising interest. And when numerous studies confirm that mobile users are more keenly aware of advertising than their desktop counterparts, the mobile ad growth is exponential. What this means for us, designing our bakery site, is that we can’t keep the same location of our ads on the smaller-screen site as we would on the dekstop site. Higher awareness equals higher clicks and in order to maximize that, the ads we place on the site should be near the top of our content hierarchy.
The inclusion of mobile devices into our world has changed the web design game. As we design, we now need to think about how our content is consumed and present that content in a way that appeals to users in the way we want it to. The “medium” in McLuhan’s infamous theory illustrates that the content is king. If the content is designed and presented properly, people forget entirely what medium they even used to reach it in the first place.
What are your thoughts? Has the mobile medium changed the game? How much has it changed it?
Some images, courtesy heidicohen.com