Mobile Site Design: A Standards-Free Wild West

Aside from uncertainty about whether M-Commerce will earn them enough money to make it worthwhile, the sheer absence of Mobile Web design standards is a daunting problem for retailers that have yet to launch transaction-ready mobile sites. In many ways, it's still the Wild West when it comes to crafting M-Commerce sites that a retailer can expect will work well on all, or even most, mobile devices.

In an attempt to bring some sanity to the Mobile Web mess, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), in 2005, formed a Mobile Web Best Practices Working Group. In 2008, the group released a Mobile Web Best Practices guide that lists 60 recommendations. Although not specific to mobile commerce sites, the suggestions include many obvious suggestions, such as "provide only minimal navigation at the top of the page," "provide consistent navigation mechanisms," "do not cause pop-ups or other windows to appear and do not change the current window without informing the user."

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Missing are the much more crucial specific recommendations so that developers can agree on what constitutes the center of the screen and at what point are pointers needed to tell users that there's a critical piece of information—such as an "add to cart" button—outside that center area. Or a way for a site to automatically detect a mobile device or how to name a URL.

Apparently, there isn't even standardization among those hoping to create standards and even M-Commerce experts aren't all abreast of the situation. For example, Impact Mobile CEO and President Barry Schwartz said he was unaware of the W3C effort but noted the Mobile Marketing Association (MMA) was busy crafting its own M-Commerce site design guidelines. On its Web site, the MMA's Mobile Commerce Committee said its goal is to eventually enable "simple, consistent and compatible consumer experiences across all carriers" and to "establish balanced guidelines that encourage brand, retail and media adoption to drive consumption."

Despite the talk about, and obvious need for, some standardization, the industry has gone in the opposite direction as carriers and device makers attempt to gain market share by differentiation, said Ran Farmer, managing director of Netbiscuits. Farmer said there are now between 5,000 and 6,000 unique mobile devices in use and each device has 750 to 800 characteristics that make it different from another, often in ways that can impact their rendering of Mobile Web pages.

When all those device idiosyncrasies are taken into consideration and carrier characteristics are added to the mix, a retailer wanting its M-Commerce site to appear properly on every device must have a system that can optimize the site in about 45,000 slightly different ways, Farmers said. "We test devices and we know that there are 750 to 800 different things about every device," he said. "It’s a pretty big effort just to keep track."

Although the M-Commerce capabilities of mobile devices are steadily improving, the same technology advances that are driving those advances are adding to the mayhem. Forget about just having to craft M-Commerce sites that work with different brands of devices. It's even a challenge to make sites that work with the various models being sold by each brand. "With Blackberry, you have the Pearl with a small screen, the older Curve with a nice, average screen, the new Curve which has same size screen but twice the resolution, the Bold with a slightly larger screen and double the resolution and the Storm which is double the size screen," Digby CEO/Founder Dave Sikora said. "So how will whatever you do for mobile devices look on all those systems? And, by the way, there might be different browsers associated with that as well."

Among the W3C's best practices recommendations:

  • Ensure that content provided by accessing a URL yields a thematically coherent experience when accessed from different devices
  • Exploit device capabilities to provide an enhanced user experience
  • Carry out testing on actual devices as well as emulators
  • Keep the URLs of site entry points short
  • Provide only minimal navigation at the top of the page
  • Ensure that content is suitable for use in a mobile context
  • Limit scrolling to one direction
  • Do not use images that cannot be rendered by the device
  • Do not rely on cookies being available