Four Strategies for Going Mobile

Submitted on Tue, 1/17/2012 - 1:17pm
Distraction is a basic fact of mobile that you have to work with. Mobile apps or websites need to be a small focused subset of the content or service you would normally offer on your full website.

Mobile coupled with the web and social media becomes a powerful tool. From the Occupy movement to the Arab Spring, mobile has been playing an unparalleled role in expressing opinions, organizing individuals and distributing information. Mobile gives enough power to the people to disturb, topple, and change lives.

Consider these statistics and trends around mobile technology:

  1. As of 2010, more mobile devices are sold worldwide than PCs.
  2. By 2013, mobile will overtake PCs for worldwide web access.
  3. Global mobile data traffic is almost tripling every year.
  4. Over 40 percent of U.S. cell owners have smartphones.
  5. Typical smartphone usage in the U.S. is about 80 minutes a day.

I am sure you remember the question of the mid-90s: Why should I put my organization on the internet? And then again a couple of years ago we were asking: Why should we have a social media presence? And now: Why should we go mobile? Because that’s where your users are getting together and hanging out. Mobility, always-on access, and dropping costs are ultimately driving people to access the web through mobile.

Mobile Difference

One important thing to consider is that mobile interaction is not the same as your desktop experience. Josh Clark in his book Tapworthy characterizes mobile user experience as – on the go: one hand, one eye, one big blur.

Mobile users are always distracted. (Credit: flickr - Yourdon / CC License: NC-SA)

At a desktop, users can dedicate their full attention to a task at hand. On mobile, the user is walking in a crowd, talking to someone, riding a bus, looking for a book, buying wine, waiting for a movie to start. Either the user is half distracted because they are performing another task and/or their environment is distracting them.

Distraction is a basic fact of mobile that you have to work with. The key takeaway here is that mobile apps or websites need to be a small focused subset of the content or service you would normally offer on your full website.

So, armed with this understanding, what are some strategies for nonprofits going mobile?

Strategy 1: Update your existing platform to mobile

Scenario: You are a organization that has a small web team which consists of… just half of your time. Your task is to update a blog and maintain some information pages. You have a Facebook page and a Twitter feed that you also update periodically.

Many popular blog platforms offer mobile display options. If you are running WordPress, you're in luck: there are a number of easily installed plug-ins that will make your site look good on a mobile device. The plug-in will detect when the user is using a mobile device and serve up the a mobile version automatically.

If you have a static site that you’ve been updating manually, maybe now is the time to think about moving your site to a blog platform. Online services such as WordPress, Blogger or Tumblr all allow you to use your organization’s URL, are easy to customize, and have mobile themes you can install or enable.

Another low hanging fruit is creating a mobile template for your email newsletter. Traffic to your website from mobile devices may still be growing stage, but your email newsletter is a different story. In looking at our own email newsletter stats, over 40 percent of users opened our email on iPhones alone. (This is a striking number even if perhaps overinflated by the fact that iPhones re-load images which leads to higher recorded open rates). Users with smartphones regularly check email from their devices on the go, and trying to zoom into teeny text while standing on a moving bus or train is not fun. Zooming requires both hands, whereas on a mobile-friendly email you can read and flick through without much effort. Most major email newsletter services like MailChimp offer mobile email templates or you can create your own.

Strategy #2: Create a mobile website

Scenario: Your site is powered by a Content Management System (CMS) that you’ve invested a lot of time, money and effort into. All your content resides in this CMS, and an upgrade or redesign with mobile in mind doesn’t seem like an easy option.

You need to figure out what is your high value content. To do this you can apply the 80-20 rule, where you identify the 20 percent of the site that meets the broad needs of 80 percent of the users that come to the site. The hard part is focusing on the high value content or service – not from your organization’s perspective, but for your user. If you can’t provide value or utility, they will leave or even go to your competition.

Mobile-friendly websites

With the content that you’ve identified, you can create a small mobile site that is simple and focused, with clear design and branding. Use code to auto-detect whether your user is viewing the site from a mobile device and serve up the simple mobile site. You can still have a link to full site in the footer, should the users want to access features not offered on the mobile site.

Strategy #3: Employ responsive design

Scenario: Just when you finally have a manageable decent site, you now see iPads, Galaxy Tabs and Amazon Fires flooding the market. How are you going to handle all these proliferating devices and screen sizes?

Responsive design is a way to make your site look good on multiple screens sizes. Check out the Boston Globe site. Pull the corner of the browser and make the window smaller. As you do this, the layout dynamically adjusts to be optimized for the screen real-estate. If you look carefully, you’ll notice that there are actually three layouts: full desktop-size with three columns, tablet-size with two columns and smartphone size with a single column.

Websites are built using HTML to control the structure of the content and CSS to control the style of the content. Responsive Design relies on a new CSS capability to query the user’s device display information and deliver styles tailored to how the content is being displayed. Armed with this and some clever JavaScripting, you can customize the same web page in a variety of ways, and deliver optimized versions for different devices, without building separate web pages.

Responsive design: Aspen Ideas Festival

To make your site responsive, you’ll need to invest in first figuring out how content and interaction should be optimized for each screen size group (smartphone, tablet, desktop PC), and then do some custom coding to make this happen. You also need to consider touch screens. The good news is that many platforms such as Drupal and WordPress have responsive design themes that you can customize to fit your site’s design.

Strategy #4: Create a native mobile app

Scenario: When you see so many organizations with dedicated iPhone or Android apps, you start to wonder if you need one too, but not sure whether a native mobile application is worth the investment.

Before you start down the path of developing a native mobile app you need to be clear about why you need one in the first place. I would argue that most organizations don’t need a dedicated iPhone or Android app. So naturally the first question to ask is mobile web app or native app? A mobile web app runs in a mobile web browser whereas a native app you download from the App Store or Android Marketplace. Now that the line between the two in terms of functionality and design are beginning to get blurred with web apps performing higher-level functions such as video, gestures and GPS integration that have been classically been the realm of the native app. You also see hybrid apps which are web apps wrapped into a native app.

The following considerations may help in your deciding whether you need a native app or web app:

  1. A native app is harder and more costly to develop than a web app.
  2. Web apps have a larger reach whereas native apps are limited to the platform for which they are deployed (iPhone, Android, Blackberry etc.).
  3. Native apps are harder to maintain and require users to download updates, whereas, from the users’ perspective, web apps are always up-to-date.
  4. Native apps can store data locally. They don’t require a live connection to the internet.
  5. Native apps can be more complex and rich in its interactions, and larger in file size.
  6. Native apps provide prestige and convenience. Your app’s icon will occupy screen real estate on your user’s phone.

In the end it boils down to the users. Do you have a user base that is dedicated and focused that will benefit from having a targeted native app? Some examples may be: a lookup/diagnostic app that needs to work where internet connectivity is limited; an app that allows a tight-knit community to more effectively connect and share information; a game app that provide training in a fun and engaging way.

Another hard decision is whether to go iPhone or Android? (There is also Blackberry, Symbian, Window Mobile and Bada). Once again this decision depends on who your audience is and what they are most likely to be using.

Most organizations build mobile apps for the following reasons:

  1. To provide access timely info and services on the go.
  2. To support a specific campaign, initiative or training purpose.
  3. To build marketing/branding and awareness.

I would argue that most of these requirements can be fulfilled with a web app, and that there needs to be a clear reasoning for going down the path to develop a dedicated native app.


Carefully consider your needs, the needs of your audience, and your budget. Leverage the content that you already have. Use ready made tools. But if you want to create dedicated experiences, choose higher options.

Thinking about mobile is a good opportunity to really think hard about what is your organization’s most important content or service that you should be presenting to your audiences, and also what your audiences consider most valuable. When you only have a few distracted seconds on a small screen knowing this becomes crucial. So much so that many experts including Google are talking about a Mobile First strategy, where you think first about your mobile users and their core needs, and then additively make the experience richer as you look towards larger screens.

Nam-ho Park is Director of Mobile Services for Forum One Communications. Nam-ho has a passion for connecting nonprofits and government agencies with internet and mobile technologies that further their impact and reach.