1. Technology

Pros and Cons of Building a Mobile Friendly Site

Writing for Mobile is Hard, Know the Facts Before You Decide to Invest the Time


I’ve been writing about building mobile friendly design for a long time, at least since 2007. It is something that I feel is very important for web design, almost as important as accessibility in general. And with mobile devices and tablets becoming more and more the way that most people browse the web, if you aren’t at least aware of mobile you are possibly hurting your website.

But there are many good reasons why you might not want to design for mobile devices:

  • cost
  • time
  • too many devices
  • device capabilities
  • developer abilities

Let’s look at these problems and see what you can do to deal with them.

Developer Abilities

This problem is the easiest to remedy as it just requires more learning on your part or on the part of your staff. Worst case you can hire someone who already knows how to design for mobile devices and convert your existing site while you learn how to do it yourself. In order to learn to design for mobile devices, there are a few things you should focus on:

  • Basic HTML—dumb phones and other older mobile devices may not handle fancy HTML and CSS, so if the basis of your site is just simple HTML, you won’t go wrong.
  • Progressive enhancement—progressive enhancement is where you build your site from a basic HTML framework and use progressive enhancement to improve it for browsers and devices that can handle more advanced features.
  • CSS media queries—media queries are the key for building mobile friendly sites. You can create site designs for multiple page sizes (from dumb phones up to huge monitors) and use the same content on every screen.

While it can be tempting to want to learn more exciting things like jQuery or PHP to detect mobile devices, this can result in a lot more work for you and your web team. Once you are comfortable with the three items above (HTML, progressive enhancement, and CSS media queries), you can add more scripting alternatives.

Too Many Devices and Device Capabilities

When I started working on the web in 1995, there were a lot of web browsers. Even the company I worked for (NETCOM) had a web browser (NetCruiser). And throughout the 90s, the browser wars were going on between Internet Explorer and Netscape. It was a very difficult time to be a web designer. It often felt like we took more time testing on hundreds of different browsers and browser versions (and different versions for different operating systems) than we did doing any design or development work. And designers that didn’t do that would proudly display images on their sites saying “Best viewed on _______.”

In many ways mobile devices make the browser wars look simple. After all there are hundreds or even thousands of mobile devices that can access the web. These devices all come with dozens of different browsers and versions on a bunch of different operating systems. Even if you can detect the exact device, there’s no guarantee that it will support all the same features of HTML and CSS as a similar device.

The solution? Don’t detect mobile devices. Instead of detecting devices, write scripts that do object detection. If the object or element doesn’t work in the current browser, your HTML can gracefully degrade to use something else.

Time and Money

This is often the hardest reason to overcome. When it really should be the easiest. The benefits of supporting mobile devices brings you more customers and more money. But many freelancers have told me that they don’t have the time to learn new technology, new CSS, new scripting languages, etc. Then they follow up that argument with the fact that custoemrs don’t ask for new technology, new CSS, or mobile support.

t you can’t rely on that being the case forever. Mobile is getting more and more popular. And while a client may not specifically ask you for a mobile version of the site, it can be even more difficult when they come to you halfway through the design process saying, “I visited the design on my iPhone yesterday and…”

If you just dedicate a few hours a week on learning what you need to know to support mobile devices, you will be surprised at how fast you can benefit from it. And once you know even a little, you can start adding it into your freelance business and make more money which can help give you more time to learn even more.

Don’t Be Afraid of Change

Change is very difficult. But learning how to manage mobile design along with the rest of your design skills has a lot of benefits to you and your customers. Change is useful, difficult, but useful.

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