Context Matters

I'm going to take advantage of the fact that I now have more than 140 characters to respond to a tweet. So earlier today @fienen tweets:

"The reason mobile web design is so hard is because it represents the next great (third?) paradigm shift in how the web is used."

I'm actually going to ignore the first half of the tweet. Design is difficult for many reasons. From the unreal number of devices/configurations and the choices that forces a developer to make to the number of different input types one has to deal with. And touch is the real game changer with input types (your finger is way bigger than a cursor and it makes a world of difference). What really stuck out to me in Michael's tweet was the the phrase "how the web is used."

With the mobile web the context of the usage really, really matters. And that context is much more narrowly defined than the desktop web in my opinion. To see the importance of context just reflect on your own mobile usage patterns. You'll probably dig out your device to check the time when the campus shuttle will arrive, to get directions to a building across campus, or to find the phone number for that professor you were supposed to be in a meeting with 10 minutes ago. They're tasks that make sense when you're out and about and where a mobile website would be particularly useful to help the user accomplish them. What you probably wouldn't do is read a school's "Letter from the Dean" web page or use the time to review the academic programs at a university to help you make a decision to apply just for the heck of it.

If there is only one thing you take away from this blog it should be this. Get to know and understand how users use the mobile web in a mobile environment. "What kind of content and services should you provide in order to answer those needs in that mobile environment?" That's the question that will drive a successful and useful mobile implementation.

The mobile web is not about having a mobile-friendly template for your glorified web-friendly brochure of a site so that you can say "users have access to it 24/7 and, now, on their mobile device too!" It's about delivering useful information that users can use to complete a task that makes sense in their current environment.

Do I think you can run out a short-term mobile-based marketing initiative that could work? Sure. But the long-term, real driving use of mobile on a campus will be based around task-based content like directory search, campus maps, and events.

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