Developing Your Mobile Web Presence: Where to Start

Business owners know that a mobile-ready site is critical for success on the Web, but navigating the maze of design and development options can be daunting. But it doesn't have to be so intimidating. A few basic guidelines can help you make the most of your company's mobile presence.

Responsive design, mobile site or app?

Ryan Matzner, director at New York-based Web development agency Fueled said the first step is to figure out what your business needs. "A lot of clients come to us not knowing what they actually need — a mobile app, a responsive site or something else," Matzner said. "Sometimes, they are not clear on what responsive means, for example, so that's a great piece of education."

In basic terms, a responsive website changes its appearance based on the screen size of the device on which it is loaded. Users who interact with a website on a full-size desktop or laptop screen will see a "traditional" site that contains full navigation, copy and images. Customers who visit the site on a tablet or mobile device will see a version of the site that has rearranged, added or eliminated elements of the page to best serve the device's capabilities and the user's needs. A mobile user visiting a restaurant's website, for example, may be greeted with a Call for Reservations button and the restaurant's hours, rather than a large animated image that might be on the full-size site.

Responsive sites offer a few advantages over other methods, said Jason Giuliano, vice president at development agency Wood Street Inc. For instance, "If they are developed correctly, they should work on any mobile device that has Internet access," Giuliano said. "Responsive sites are also less expensive and easier to update."

Whereas a responsive site uses the same code to produce views for mobile and tablet users, a mobile site is essentially a separate website that loads only when the website is accessed using a mobile device. This method offers the designer and developer more opportunities to customize the appearance and content of both the mobile and desktop versions of the site, but it's less flexible in terms of presentation on multiple screen sizes.

Finally, mobile apps are what users download from the Google Play or Apple App stores. Mobile apps offer developers opportunities to interact with capabilities offered by smartphones or tablets, such as GPS, that may not be available on websites but are often more expensive to develop and harder to update. "Mobile apps would be better for product solutions — if you are charging people to access the content," Giuliano said. "Also, the main application would be downloaded to the customer's phone, so Internet access is not mandatory."

Consider the ROI

Once you understand the basic mobile site options, consider timing. The statistics for mobile development are compelling. According toOn Device Research, 25 percent of mobile Web users only access the Internet with their mobile phones. More significantly, a study byLatitude showed that 61 percent of people have a better opinion of a brand when it provides a positive mobile experience. "Business owners have to realize that mobile is here, and it is here to stay," Giuliano said. "More and more customers are using their phones to search for services and pay for products, and this will continue to increase as the younger Web audience grows into viable consumers."

Still, business owners — particularly new entrepreneurs — may be wise to start their mobile development slowly.

Tracey Bolton, creative director at San Francisco design firm Bolton Design, said companies should consider their needs before signing up for mobile development. "Ask yourself: Does a mobile or responsive site make sense for our business right now?" Bolton said. "Begin by looking at some numbers. Site analytics are a good jumping point. What percentage of my site traffic is coming from mobile? What is my current mobile traffic, and how has that changed over the past one to three years?”

Matzner agreed that a gradual rollout of mobile capabilities may provide the most return on investment for small businesses. "A small business owner who needs a simple site might begin with a low-cost responsive template from a service like Squarespace," Matzner said. "When you get bigger, you can think about going all out with a custom site. We consider this a two- or three-year plan."

Optimizing your developer relationship

When you have considered the options for your mobile site, asking the right questions of a prospective developer can help maximize your website's success. Bolton said a savvy business owner should look for a few key traits. "You need good rapport with your design and development team," she said. "You will be in close contact with this person or studio for several months.”

The developer "should give you a thorough proposal with an outline of their process; a breakdown of deliverables, budget and timeline; and a fair work contract with terms that both parties agree to," Bolton added.

Once a development company has been selected, provide the firm with key information about your company, Matzner said.

"Know who your customers are," Matzner said. "Are they moms driving a carpool, or people in the financial industry? Demographic information is key to making [a development company's] job easier."

Business owners should recognize that just as brands evolve, their mobile presence will as well. A great development team can help businesses optimize their existing potential while showing them avenues for progress they might not have known existed.

"With the outside perspective they bring, the team you partner with can identify pain points and opportunities, balance business goals with user experience and ultimately devise a strategy that provides creative options for a successful progression into mobile," Bolton said.