Choose the Right Path to Mobile

We're more than halfway through 2014 -- the year when mobile usage will surpass desktop computing -- but many marketers and technologists are still scratching their heads about the best way to create a satisfying experience for mobile customers.

"Mobile is going to be there all the time. It's going to be in your face. So, really, are you ready for that?," asked Fred Faulkner, director of marketing and digital strategist for ICF Interactive (formerly CITYTECH). During a CMSWire webinar yesterday, he fired off a series of questions to mobile minded managers on the call. (Watch the Webinar)

"Are we ready for the 2.3 billion people who are going to be using smartphones by 2017? Are we ready for the fact that, of the smartphone users today, 62 percent are expecting a mobile friendly website?," he asked.

Understanding Choices

Faulkner joined with Scott Infante, IT manager for business intelligence and integration at FirstEnergy Corp., to help the audience understand its options in mobile. Each path came with some good news and some bad news, so it's important to pick the strategy that best fits a particular business.

A poll conducted during the webinar found that each of the options was being used by at least some of the audience members, but none was being used by a majority. Responsive design and the mobile web were the most popular choices.

Four Paths

Here's a short summary of each option, based on Faulkner's more detailed explanations:

Responsive Design is the most far reaching approach. It translates a specially designed website to any sort of mobile device by finding pre set "break points." Those break points convert a complex page into chunks of content that are stacked in a manner that suits the device. 

The good news is that it's quick to market and less costly because there is just one development team needed. The bad news is that it can't take advantage of many features in smartphones because it isn't designed for that device. Also, those breakpoints make life more complicated for those creating the content.

"It makes a content author have to think about content in what I would call a multidimensional way," he said. "Those of you who have a lot of tables on your website are not going to find responsive design very useful because responsive design doesn't handle tables very well."

Mobile web, another popular approach, creates entirely different templates for web and mobile. The downside is that the mobile versions lack the richness of the web experience, though mobile web content can be updated more easily than some other approaches.

The mobile experience is different with the mobile web strategy. 

Native apps are designed for specific devices, whether they run on iOS, Android, Windows or Blackberry. They can take full advantage of the camera, microphone and GPS signals along with almost all other features, and they can even generate revenue if they're sold through an app store.

The downside is that they are the hardest and most costly to develop because they require engineers with different skill sets. Further, they usually can't be updated quickly because changes have to be approved by the app store before going to consumers.

Native hybrid apps can take advantage of many -- but not all -- smartphone functions by blending existing web content with the native capabilities in the phone. It does this by placing content within a software wrapper that lives within the otherwise native app.

The content in hybrid apps can be updated quickly, but the apps don't deliver the same quality of user experience that comes with fully native apps.

Faulkner also addressed some of the many technical tools available, using Adobe products as examples for each mobile effort. Responsive design can be built with Adobe Experience Manager (AEM); the Mobile Web uses AEM and PhoneGap; Native Apps can be built with AEM, PhoneGap and Digital Publishing Suite (DPS); and hybrid apps rely on AEM, PhoneGap and DPS.

Storms of Change

Like a lot of IT professionals, Scott Infante's power company was planning to make the move to mobile but wasn't quite there when Hurricane Irene struck in 2011. That storm was followed by Hurricane Sandy a year later.

"Until that time, mobile was something of a strategic roadmap item," he said. "Then these two major storms came with an immediate outpouring of customer need -- from us to them and vice versa."

Using AEM, the company created multiple channels that customers of its 11 different operating companies could use to report outages, query about repair times and get information from the companies on when power would be restored.

24 Apps

AEM allowed the company to deliver content from its website without the need of creating native apps. With 11 companies, it would have required 22 native apps plus another pair for the parent company, he noted -- a huge investment.

"Since the beginning, we knew our strategy was going to be desktop web first, mobile web second, and mobile apps third," he said. "That gave the company the flexibility to gather feedback and make changes before committing the money and staff resources needed to create native apps."