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What separates the good from the bad in the mobile web space? More importantly, what makes a good mobile application truly great? There are lots of examples out there, but what can mobile developers learn from them? Here are some common sense guidelines: Mimic the desktop […]

What separates the good from the bad in the mobile web space? More importantly, what makes a good mobile application truly great? There are lots of examples out there, but what can mobile developers learn from them? Here are some common sense guidelines:

Mimic the desktop UI

Facebook mobile Each web site or web application that we use in this Web 2.0 world has a feel that we’re used to; the mobile version of web sites should merely be an extension of that experience. Web developers should use the same fonts, color schemes and buttons wherever possible to make us feel at home. For an example, check out Mobile Facebook (here on the left), which uses the same blue hues and fonts as the Facebook I use everyday in Firefox. Facebook has also made it easy to click on a friend’s name and pull up their profile page with a mini-feed, contact information, and other Facebook features we know and love.

Good examples: Mobile Flickr, Mobile Google Reader and Pownce Mobile.

Strip it, strip it real good

Flickr MobileA great mobile web site is a stripped-down, more functional version of its original incarnation, and simplicity is king — all unnecessary graphics should be be excluded. In terms of screen flow, content should be presented first, with navigation placed at the bottom of each page. Having to scroll past navigation to get to the real meat of a web page is the bane of any mobile user’s existence.

Good examples: Mobile Twitter, Google and Mobile Wunderground.

It’s the hardware, stupid

Smart mobile application developers utilize the hardware to its full extent. One example is the Nokia platform, which is known for being completely transparent and vulnerable to developers and has subsequently yielded some great applications.

Good examples: JoikuSpot will use the built-in Wi-Fi to turn your WAP cell phone into a wireless access point; ShoZu will use the N95’s GPS to automatically geo-tag photos and upload them to Flickr; Nokia Sports Tracker will use the GPS module to give you a map and stats about your workouts.

Know thy platform

Mobile web applications should be written natively for each device. Java applications, including GMail for mobile and others, are quirky and routinely lock up, requiring the user to either exit or restart. Having to write apps for multiple platforms may be tedious, but will result in happy users.

Google was able to take Google Maps to an entirely new level of usability by adding “My Location,” which uses cell-phone towers to give an approximate location and has been called a “poor man’s GPS.” It’s only accurate to around 1,000 meters, but saves keystrokes when trying to find a local pizza place.

Unfortunately with most mobile platforms, especially here in the U.S., hardware is limited by cell-phone service providers that subsidize handsets. But Google’s Android and the Open Handset Alliance will help put in motion a new era of “openness,” and consumers will be the direct benefactors.

And of course, Apple’s SDK is coming out soon, which will undoubtedly spawn numerous touch-based applications.

My prediction: The iPhone will be the most hotly contested mobile application platform and the App Store will be full of highly functional and downright fun applications to add to your precious iPhone.

  1. Jason,

    You make some good points, however I think your assessment is iPhone centric which has numerous problems in and of itself. First of all, it isn’t a good idea to try and mimic the UI. A good mobile application should provide a great user experience that delivers the same value to the user as the pc experience. Secondly, your assessment ignores mobile applications that are “native experiences”, meaning the pc experience is secondary to the primary experience which is mobile.

    Next, a great mobile application MUST be wide reaching by design and engineering. This means that it is nearly impossible to develop a mobile application that works on many handsets regardless of operating system that takes into account fonts, color schemes, buttons, etc. Most cell phones are not universal in their support of design elements that you typically experience on a pc. Again, your assessment here is iPhone specific.

    Your suggestion to strip graphics is spot on as image management (and multimedia in general) is challenging given the lack of standards on the various operating systems and devices.

    With regards to developing native applications, your suggestion is fine if the goal is to maximize development costs and minimize operating margins. Your recommendation isn’t financially feasible. In order to achieve cost efficiencies in development, a developer must deliver scalable applications (scalable across devices and operating systems), or else risk driving up costs once again.

    In short, any developer that is seeking to profitably achieve scale in the mobile marketplace must target the largest device segments. These are:

    1. internet
    2. j2ME
    3. symbian
    4. brew
    5. linux
    6. windows
    7. safari

    Now granted, the iPhone is hot in the US, but during the same time that the iPhone has been on the market, Nokia has sold more N series phones (about 7x) and HTC has sold more windows mobile phones (about 3x).

    I think what makes a good mobile application great is one that has good market take up. We haven’t seen any as of yet, though internet usage is high amongst iPhone users in the US, it is certainly reasonable to expect adoption of mobile applications on other devices when consumers begin using data services in the US more readily.

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  2. I disagree simply “Mimic the desktop UI” or “merely be an extension of that experience” is good for the mobile world. Good enough maybe, but nothing great.

    Think uniquely mobile.

    The example I like to use all the time is the Travel Web site. I might use the full Travel site to plan my trip, book my flight. It’s insane to think I will do the same tasks on my phone.

    What’s more likely, is, I want to use the same travel site on my phone but to view my itinerary, or places to eat at my destination.

    Designing for mobile =! miniaturization of the existing Web.

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  3. Nice article and good examples. YellowPages.com has also created good mobile applications for local search.

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  4. Hey George,

    I never said to miniaturize the existing UI, I merely suggested developers have some commonality in design.

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  5. We’ve been thinking about this a lot too. After going through our whole list we felt the following summed almost all of it up.

    “A Mobile App needs to be immediately and consistently gratifying.”

    If a user has to work at it, it will not be useful.

    As a side note, American Airlines launched a mobile version of their website which was simple, fast and great. aa.com.

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  6. @Jason :

    Understood. My statement on “Designing for mobile =! miniaturization of the existing Web.” is for the (Web) developers and (Web) designers out there – think uniquely mobile.

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  7. Jason,

    If you get a chance visit our website at http://www.theoig.com and see
    our mobi site and how it relates to the tourism amd lodging industry.
    Your comments would be appreciative. Our mobi site is http://www.theoig.mobi

    We will be launching a new site soon called MAGI 7 ( Mobile Awareness Gathering Information )
    Thanks
    Mike

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  8. You’re right about many of the comments up there regarding simplicity but I also think you left out the need for compatibility with phone usages. Some applications take up a lot of CPUs. Newer aps are coming out though like Cellspin (www.cellspin.net) that are embracing all of your good points on here and going beyond applications that are already out there.

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  9. “What Makes a Good Mobile Application Great”

    Question: What makes a good review of mobile services Great?

    Answer: Understanding that 95% of the market does not carry smart phones or unlimited data plans… so start your evaluation from the mass market, not from the bleeding edge.

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  10. A product management discipline that I have found effective in defining application UI, usability and workflow is the jobs, outcomes and constraints model.

    This model simply espouses that your target user “hires” a given piece of software to perform a specific set of jobs relative to well-defined outcome goals and known constraints/limitations (that the platform or the user faces).

    On some level, mobile (at least until iPhone SDK powered native apps begin rolling out) is defined by constraints (device processing, local storage, screen size, keyboard, data costs, carrier restrictions, etc.) so jobs and outcomes have to be factored accordingly.

    I know that everyone is picking on your assertion about mimic’ing the desktop UI but the point is that a mobile application is not a shrunken down PC.

    Hence, the best approach (unless you are Google and have an unlimited budget or Facebook and have 40M users) is to start with the jobs that can readily satisfy specific outcome goals relative to real world constraints and go from there.

    If interested in noodling further on this one, here is a post that I wrote that anticipates mobility 2.0 apps (from a decided iPhone/iPod touch centric perspective):

    http://thenetworkgarden.com/weblog/2008/03/mobility-20-and.html

    Cheers,

    Mark

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