5 Reasons Universal Mobile Site Designs Don’t Work

There is a growing frustration among smartphone users. Every month, it seems, a company releases the next greatest smartphone. We have phones that are more powerful than laptops of a few years ago. Yet the mobile web experience overall hasn’t improved much in the last few years.

When you visit a blog from your smartphone, what you see is essentially an old-school blog — lots of text-based information with no frills. That might sound like a great idea, especially now that most mobile users are restricted by data usage caps. The stripped-down mobile design consumes hardly any data. But it also misses a huge point behind improving smartphones.

We want these powerful smartphones to, well, take advantage of their power. Yet when we see standard mobile websites, usually formed with a simple WordPress plugin, we get a glimpse of the old web. And who wants that?

Think that the ease and simplicity of a WordPress plugin for your mobile site outweighs the design benefits? Think again. Here are five reasons why the typical WordPress mobile site plugin ruins the smartphone browsing experience.

1. Still Chronological?

instantShift - Basic Mobile Site

If your blog still uses the reverse-chronological format that has been common to blogs since the beginning, you’re a dying breed. In an effort to keep up with modern web trends, many blog publishers have moved to a magazine-style layout. There are many advantages to this style, but that’s outside of our focus. The overall point is that mobile themes will not work well for this style.

Most mobile site plugins for WordPress reduce a blog to its minimal parts. In other words, it merely displays the most recent posts, in reverse chronological order. While that’s fine and good for blogs that still work in the reverse chronological order, it doesn’t work nearly as well for blogs that employ the magazine format. The site just doesn’t make sense when placed in reverse chronological order.

Consider these scenarios:

Featured articles:

Imagine you’re an editor for a site, and you pay a freelancer a goodly sum to write an in-depth feature article. The article is place prominently on your site for a few days. But on your mobile site it gets buried under new content, because that’s how the mobile plugin works.

Sponsored content:

Publishers are actively looking for ways to earn money that don’t involve display advertising. One method many currently employ is sponsored content — which doesn’t do much good if not featured in a prominent place. We’ll dig into this more deeply in the next section, but it’s a huge concern for monetization.

Sidebar content:

While many sites have eschewed sidebars in favor of a stronger main content section, there are a number of sites that still make productive use of sidebar sections. On a template mobile site, the sidebar is removed from the picture. That’s quite a shame, especially for sites that run useful information or user-generated content there.

2. Revenue Streams

instantShift - Mobile Ad

Since the early to mid 2000s, bloggers have been looking under every rock for ways to earn money for their labors. Google had its AdSense program in place, but it amounted to little more than webmaster welfare. Yet people still chased that dragon, especially after Jeremy Schoemaker flashed his $132,994.97 check. What most site owners don’t fully understand is a simple fact about the modern display advertising market: you need incredible scale to succeed.

Even a relatively large site might have trouble hitting an advertiser’s target numbers in today’s environment. The site might have 10 million hits per month, but how many of them actually count for ad impressions? The problem is that sites are seeing a huge uptick in mobile visitors. One of my sites currently sees a third of its traffic from mobile devices. When a smartphone user browses to your cookie cutter mobile site, they’re not seeing those display ads. They therefore don’t earn you money, and don’t count as impressions for advertisers.

(To be fair, many sites that forego the mobile plugin also suffer from this problem. A number of ads are still served in Flash format, and most mobile devices simply do not display Flash.)

As mentioned in the previous section, publishers and advertisers have experimented with sponsored content as a new monetization method. Problem is, it’s relatively new and only open at this point to major publishers. Your typical mid-sized blog or other online publication won’t get an advertiser’s attention (thus creating the same problem as display ads). That’s a problem, because sponsored content seems to be one of the only ways to capture mobile revenue.

For an example of how it works, check out Gawker’s mobile site. (You’ll obviously have to go from your smartphone.) They have what amount to referral links interspersed with their content. But is Mid-Tier Blog A going to find the same kind of deal? Probably not. Advertisers want numbers, and if they’re purchasing referrals chances are they’re not going to find enough from Mid-Tier Blog A to make it worth their while.

Most publishers are reduced to what the Huffington Post does with its mobile site: a single ad, usually filled through a network. How much money do you think they make off that hit? Probably a fraction of what they make from a hit on their main site. Now go back to the point about a third of a site’s users visiting from a mobile device. That’s an awful lot of money left on the table.

The only solution is a custom design that can incorporate traditional ads until sponsored content evolves and starts to include non-top-tier blogs.

3. Focus on Graphics

instantShift - Gawker Mobile

The modern smartphone is indeed a pocket computer. The two most popular models on the market, the iPhone 5 and the Samsung Galaxy S III, not only contain powerful processors, but also eye-pleasing graphics. The S III in particular awes with its visual pleasure, thanks to a resolution of 720 x 1280 pixels on a 4.8-inch screen. Apple’s Retina display also impresses. That leaves open an important question:

Why would you deny these users a vibrant visual display on your site?

Last year marked the beginning of an inevitable shift towards the visual web. Pinterest’s popularity might not have caused the shift, but it was certainly a sign of its emergence. Websites now focus on two main elements: images and headlines. Yet only one of them really comes through on mobile.

Most WordPress mobile site plugins don’t provide room for many, if any, images on the home page. The point is simplicity, and so it shows you those posts in reverse chronological order. Absent is the new visual web, eschewed for the sake of ease.

Even souped up designs, such as you see with Gawker’s mobile website, don’t take advantage of a smartphone’s image-intensive screen. The image next to each post is tiny — hardly recognizable on smaller screens such as the iPhone 4. So while there is an attempt to capture the visual nature of the site on mobile, it hasn’t come through in practice.

The increased focus on objects over text will eventually spur a change in the mainstream mobile web solutions. As of now, though, there are few alternatives. Websites that follow the modern trend and focus on images and headlines might find it difficult to realize success on mobile without a custom solution.

4. Big Time Bugs

instantShift - Mobile On Desktop

Here we get a bit personal. On one of my websites, we have been through a number of mobile plugins. The reason we keep switching: the bugs. There is some level of bugginess that is acceptable, and should even be expected with most WordPress-related software. But the bugs we’ve found with mobile website plugins has left us no choice but to remove them and start thinking of a new solution. (Hence the motivation for writing this article.)

Here are some of the issues that we have encountered that led us to remove all mobile plug-ins:

  • Frequent crashes: Multiple times per week we used to receive emails about our site crashing users’ iPhone browsers. The solution was simple, in that they merely had to clear the cache. But users don’t want to clear their caches every time they visit a particular website. We thanked our users for sticking with us while we dealt with the issue, but in the end we couldn’t find a workable solution. We had to ditch that plugin and find another.
  • Inability to switch: As we’ll discuss in greater depth shortly, some users want the full website display on their smartphones. One plugin we used offered the option to switch to the desktop display, which we viewed as a huge positive. The negative: it never worked. You’d flip the switch, sure, but the website would again detect a mobile device and automatically switch itself back. That kind of defeats the purpose.
  • Mobile on desktop: The complaint that moved us to uninstall our latest mobile plugin was beyond unacceptable to us. Users would visit our site from a desktop or laptop, but see the mobile site. This happened seemingly at random, and only for some users. Worse, other users ran into the mobile display only when viewing individual posts, meaning the comments didn’t have their natural, nested look. Worst of all, the button to turn off the mobile theme sat on the bottom of the site, but didn’t actually revert them to the desktop website. That plugin was promptly removed and will never be used again.
  • Extraneous pages: Back in 2009 we were using a very basic mobile plugin. That was the year of the iPhone 3GS and a few decent Android phones, but BlackBerry was still prevalent and so mobile websites were deemed necessary. That year we also finally installed Google Webmaster Tools. Upon examining the site, we found that the mobile plugin left us with many unlinked pages that Webmaster Tools did not like. We had to do some serious admin work in order to remove those files. We, of course, also removed that plugin immediately.

Those are just four huge problems that I have encountered while using various mobile WordPress plugins. There are surely other issues that others have faced. Yes, developers continually improve their plugins, and many of these problems have been or will be solved with updates. But they caused us enough issues that we’d rather stay away from them altogether.

5. Users Want More

We are past the days when tiny BlackBerry screens represented a plurality of smartphone users. We’re even getting past, if not already past, the days where Apple’s 3.5-inch screen was the gold standard. Even Apple recognized that people want larger screens when it increased the iPhone 5’s screen to 4 inches. But given the huge sales numbers for two even larger devices, the 4.8-inch Samsung Galaxy S III and the 5.5-inch Samsung Galaxy Note II, it seems that users expect more from their smartphone displays these days.

Why, then, would a website owner push them to use a dull, bare bones mobile site? If your website is current with the times, it has a strong graphical focus that a mobile plugin cannot replicate. When users visit your site, no matter what their device, they expect that kind of layout. When they see a list of headlines, requiring clicks to see articles, their expectations are violated. No business owner wants to violate his customers’ expectations; such is the death knell of business.

Users with these smartphones — pocket computers, really — want a more vibrant mobile web experience. Many users email me wanting the full desktop display on their phones. They can zoom and tap to make it work. I feel them, since I’m in the same boat. I have the Galaxy Note 2 on T-Mobile, and I’m sick of seeing Gawker’s mobile site every time I load it. In order to load the main website I have to scroll all the way to the bottom, past multiple instances where it auto-loads additional posts, in order to visit the desktop website.

It seems that some websites understand this concept, but apply it only to tablets and not smartphones. Again, Pinsterest has spurred a revolution in website design, with a greater focus on image-based modules. A number of Pinterest-like WordPress themes have hit the market, further solidifying the trend. These designs are said to be made-for-tablet, which is a noble cause given the rise in tablet usage over the last three years. But what about smartphones? Again, I’m on the Note 2, a mere 1.5 inches smaller than the Kindle Fire. Why does the Fire user get the vibrant graphic display while I get a list of headlines?

Possible Solutions

Above I have described the many problems with current mobile website design. Yet there are few alternatives presented. Here are a few that stand out to me, and that my own website is considering.

Custom mobile design. Web developers and designers will love this, because it means more business for them. Anyone serious about providing a quality experience for the ever-increasing number of mobile web browsers will hire someone to develop a custom mobile site, at m.yoursite.com. Website owners will push back, because that means spending money, and money is scarce. But it’s absolutely an investment in an increasing trend that will surely consume the future.

Option-based viewing. A few times I’ve visited websites on my Note 2 I have been asked whether I want the desktop version or the mobile version. Thank you for respecting my wishes, website owners who employ this tactic. It is the bare-bones essential for today’s smartphone browsing.

Design that works on all platforms. People expect uniformity. If they see one design on mobile and another on desktop, their expectations might be violated. The future is about having a single design that works on desktop, smartphones, and tablets. The Pinterest-style themes are a start. Working with a developer and designer to create a uniform design could be well worth the investment.

We have powerful modern tools, but there is a large population of blogs that neglects to take advantage of them. People are sick of the boilerplate WordPress mobile site plugins. They want their powerful, vibrant devices to offer them a more visual experience. It is the responsibility of website owners everywhere to understand this desire and to design a mobile site that fits modern users. Delaying any further will only hurt your website.

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  1. I am a firm supporter of NON-responsive websites. There is absolutely no reason we should need a “mobile” sized website in today’s versatile smartphone market. iPhones and Androids offer full web browsers. It is extremely annoying to get to a website that is responsive on my iPhone and then there is no link to view a full version of it. That to me is way more irritating than coming to a site that does not have a link to a mobile version.

  2. Is it RAM factors main factor why mobile site designs don’t work?

  3. When implemented and maintained properly, a true responsive website can accommodate many userinterface issues. That is if the web designer and developer have truly done their homework so they are offering the most “important” content on a website and are consistently performing analytics to check for bottlenecks in the user activity. True that a responsive website is not the end-all answer for everything, but as I mentioned above, if its implemented properly, it can accommodate almost an umlimted number of devices and viewing ports.

  4. I chose mobile app instead of mobile website. Native app is best for mobile devices and users can have very good experience.

  5. P.S: I have a Magento store and built aMagento mobile app. It works really well :)

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