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Websites for smart phones take centre stage

Your website might not work well on smaller displays.

Since the start of the world wide web there has been a problem that the devices your visitor uses to view your website can be very different in their basic capacity for displaying your site. Over the last ten years this problem reduced, as visitors adopted a fairly standard ‘web-enabled-device’ configuration consisting of a desktop computer, with a ‘modern’ browser, and a screen of about 1200x800px in dimensions.

Over the last five years, however, this situation has started to change again with the growing popularity of mobile devices, such as tablets and smart phones:

Global internet usage through mobile devices, not including tablets*, has almost doubled to 8.5% in January 2012 from 4.3% last year according to free web analytics company StatCounter.

While the stats above indicate that we need to start paying attention to these small-screen devices, the actual numbers of mobile browsers out in the wild is probably greater than that of our traditional desktop driving visitor – but browsing the web on a phone is, lets face it, painful.

HTML5 to the rescue?

The widespread adoption of HTML5 – which is not a recognised standard – is in part because it allows web-designers to adapt their designs for smaller screens, to smoothly simplify their sites, so that it works on a smart phone.

This approach is not without problems – the main smart-phone vendors are well aware that to be any use their browser must do a reasonable job of a ‘traditional’ website, allowing visitors using their smart phone full access to the web.

Often web designers actually make their sites worse by hacking out bits to simplify the site. This is particularly true if we try and adapt our sites for tablets – our philosophy (CookandKaye) is that these have large enough screens to manage all but the most bloated web layout, so generally we would leave well alone! (This is also cheaper for you!)

WordPress 2012 theme – the web on its head

We use WordPress themes very extensively* – with a small amount of customisation they offer a solid entry-level website for many of our clients. We therefore follow the latest theme developments with a great deal of interest. Over the last couple of years WordPress templates have attempted, with moderate success, to scale their layout to the smaller screen.

The latest template, however, changes everything by designing for the small screen, and then ‘going large’ for desktop and tablet displays.

Above: Movie showing the ‘smartphone first’ approach to web design. It focuses on what you need on your page first, and makes this available to a small-screen display. This may then be enhanced in an all-singing and dancing large screen version**.

This really is a daring piece of design, taking on board the probability that in a relatively small space of time a lot of people’s main browser will be on their phone. This may already be the case with the traditional WordPress market – instant news from the blogs you follow should be available instantly, wherever you are, and on whatever device you have to hand (usually your phone). Where the cutting edge leads, however, it is likely that the rest of the web will follow. This may be a couple of years down the road, but still an important decision for a new website design.

The advantages of the new WordPress design are obvious – in focussing on the mobile site first, you help ensure that a mobile user has everything they need from your website. There are, however, a number of downsides:

  1. Without enhancement the site looks a bit minimalist on a traditional display (and with a better processor). Thus we still have a two layer design, adding background images and multi-column layouts where these can be appreciated on a larger screen. The second layer is activated using HTML5.
  2. The bugbear is, however, Internet Explorer (as ever). Unfortunately a lot of people out there are still using older versions of IE, and these don’t understand HTML5. As a consequence we need a third layer – essentially an entirely independent set of styling instructions for these dinosaurs.

The advantage of this design philosophy is that you only have one website to manage, and the clever 2012 theme delivers the appropriate styling for the device. The problem is that there is quite a lot of extra work required to follow this design practice.

Conclusions – where to with your website?

The WordPress 2012 theme is a great, future (and past) proof, all-round theme for basic sites. As long as you like grey, which is apparently the new black, again. If you can use it ‘as is’ – go for it!

Adapting the design philosophy to create bespoke sites will, however, add to the price (but probably not as much as a second mobile site). In deciding whether or not this is a good move for your business, you need to take into account the type of service you are offering. For many businesses and academic institutions, we expect the conversion to mobile browsing to be a bit behind the curve, so for a website lifespan of three to five years, the added cost may not be justified.

If you have an existing site, you can check on the numbers of people using mobile devices on your site now (if you have these statistics), and work out where you are on the adoption curve. This may well indicate that a competent mobile site must be considered essential.

* We are not alone in recommending WordPress for a lot of our work. It accounts for over half of all CMS driven websites, and one in six of ALL websites (Feb 2013 (BACK)
** Now with HTML5 movies – these are rather larger than the old Flash movies, but can play on mobile devices, though prone to jitters as the graphics processor on mobile devices is very under-powered compared to desktop machines. This may be one reason Apple chose not to support Flash, as Flash movies have to be re-generated on the fly – making for tiny downloads, but lots of graphic processor work… (BACK)