Five ways to think mobile first (notes for OpenGov Hackathon and BCNI Philly)

On Saturday April 28 I’ll be in Philadelphia to help with the BarCamp News Innovation unconference and Open Government News Hackathon. These events are sponsored by the Center for Public Interest Journalism at Temple University, and are part of Philly Tech Week.

Temple is my old stomping ground; I graduated from journalism school there in 1990. And I’m rather stunned at all the huge new buildings that have sprung up around the campus. Good to see the school grow!

The reason Temple brought me in to help with these events is because I’m passionate about mobile and about the Philly area. I grew up in South Jersey and still have lots of family and friends in the region. So for me, helping more people in the Greater Philadelphia Area access more useful local information, news, and services via their cell phones is not just important — it’s personal!

…This is especially pressing given the continuing rocky status of Philadelphia Media Network, which publishes the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Daily News, and My grandfather Len McAdams worked on the editorial team of “The Inky” for decades. He’d be furious to hear that earlier this month PMN was sold for the fifth time in six years — at a fire sale price of $55 million. Sheesh.

Here are a few points I’d like participants in tomorrow’s barcamp and hackathon to consider…

1. Mobile is fast becoming the most common way for people to get online.

Last September IDC predicted that by 2015 more people in the U.S. will access the internet from mobile devices than from laptop or desktop computers. So if you want to reach your community at all, you’ll probably need to do it through their phones.

This means it’s becoming not just common, but normal for people to use their cell phones, tablets, and e-readers to do anything that can be done over the internet — search and browse the web, take an online class, send and receive e-mail, use social media, buy stuff, collaborate on documents or projects, stream video and audio, access services (everything from TurboTax and Dropbox to Social Security or your health insurance provider), use instant messaging or video chat, and more.

2. Start considering mobile users FIRST!

The core functionality, navigation, and presentation of everything you offer online must work well enough on a cell phone — in a smartphone web browser, and in any apps you offer.

This means not just designing with a small screen in mind, but also making touch the primary way that people will interact with your online offering, and minimizing how much typing users need to do. This helps for both cell phones and tablets.

Consider what cell phone users want to DO with your content and service. Identify and prioritize the possible activities and interactions. This use case represents an especially activity-focused mindset, more than tablet users.

Just because your full website can load on a smartphone’s web browser doesn’t mean it’s mobile friendly. If mobile users must pinch, zoom, and scroll to see what’s on your page, that’s a big hassle. (Even though some iPhone users stridently prefer this. Fine. Whatever. Give them the option to switch to your full site and set a cookie to remember their preference.)

These core aspects of how your envision, design, and build your online offerings are now more important than designing a site that looks really nice on a big monitor. Yes, you’ll still need a full site — computers will still be an important use case. But consider how to integrate a user’s experience across multiple devices (as they switch from their computer at work, to their phone when out and about, to their tablet at home).

3. The mobile experience is only as good as the wireless access.

Most of the time smartphone users will be on their carriers’ wireless data networks — which means the speed with which they can access your offerings will vary greatly, depending on how strong and congested the carrier network is where they happen to be standing at the moment. Wifi is pretty fast, but it’s far from ubiquitous.

Therefore, plan your smartphone-focused offerings to work well enough (deliver at least the bare minimum of information or functionality) over an unreliable or slow wireless network connection. gathers detailed independent data on wireless network coverage and performance. That’s generally a more reliable guide to the kind of network performance your local users can expect — compared to the carriers’ own coverage maps, which are mostly theoretical and overly optimistic. Rootmetrics published its report on wireless in Philadelphia in August 2011. Their next Philly report is due out in a couple of weeks. This is a great resource for seeing whether users in specific neighborhoods face specific network challenges or opportunities

Oh, and: Don’t depend on the current rollout of carriers’ faster “4G” networks (LTE, HSPA+, etc.) to solve the problem of your mobile website loading slowly. See my recent post for the Knight Digital Media Center at USC: Why the mobile web is slow, and your mobile site must be FAST!

4. Text messaging is still crucial. Use it!

Yeah, it’s not as glamorous as Instagram, but text messaging remains — by far — the most ubiquitous and popular type of communication people use on their cell phones. And that’s on all kinds of phones, from crappy cheap feature phones to screaming whompous smartphones.

Therefore, I strongly recommend that you augment any mobile offerings with text messaging — either broadcast-style alerts, or user-specific interactivity.

This week the ZeroDivide Foundation published my white paper: Funding Mobile Strategies for Social Impact. It includes a section on why SMS is so important, why it’s been underutilized in U.S. mobile offerings, and how to capitalize on SMS opportunities for your mobile projects.

Tools like Tropo and Twilio can help you add SMS functionality to your service or content — or to create a mobile service that operates purely over SMS. Also, if you can’t or don’t want to build your own SMS solution, you can use fee-based SMS services like Textmarks or Mobile Commons to send out SMS alerts to users.

Text messaging doesn’t travel over the carrier’s data network. It uses the same wireless network channels as voice calls, so it’s most likely to work under the crappiest wireless network conditions or coverage.

Plus, since SMS text messaging is accessible on any phone, it allows you to include all mobile users in your strategy — especially people who can’t afford or don’t want a smartphones. So if poor people or older people matter to your mission, texting is a must! (Even though text messaging is popular with all types of mobile users, even iPhone owners.)

5. Tablets aren’t really “mobile,” but they’re important.

Yes, the iPad is pretty. And slick. And cool. So are Android tablets, from the Kindle Fire up to the Samsung Galaxy Tab and more.

But in terms of how people use and perceive these devices, tablets represent mainly a “lean back” use case. That is, people mostly use them to read, or watch videos, or look at photos.

Yes, people also use tablets to play games, do e-mail and social media, or sometimes write or do work, or interact with online services. But these are relatively minor use cases for tablets.

So if you’re customizing your mobile experience for tablet users vs. smartphone users, your mobile website or app should reflect more of a lean-back access to content (search, reading, etc.); while smartphone users will be more focused on interactivity, bookmarking, and sharing.

If you’re starting a brand new project from scratch, it’s a good idea to incorporate principles of responsive web design from the start. Technically, that will save you work in the long run and make it easier to adapt your mobile strategy to any kind of devices that come up in the future — augmented reality glasses, cortical implants for Borg assimilation, etc.

To really get the “mobile first” mindset, read Luke Wroblewski’s excellent book Mobile First. And listen to anything he says. He’s a genius. I’m not kidding.

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