August 18, 2010, 6:04 PM

How to make a mobile site seem to load fast—even if it doesn’t

Speed is important in m-commerce, and the illusion of speed is almost as good.

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M-commerce sites, while growing in number feverishly, are still relatively new. As many retailers still toil to get them fully functional, the added task of making sure they load fast often falls by the wayside. 

If retailers are still working out mobile site performance kinks, there are some things they can do to help appease visitors in the interim—such as better communicate with mobile customers. For example, when high-end department store retailer Barneys New York returns mobile site search results, it tells shoppers the number of items it is returning before all the images load. That way, a young woman knows the wait for a black evening dress is taking awhile because there are more than 50 styles.

Vidya Drego, senior analyst, customer experience, at Forrester Research Inc., suggests offering constant status updates. She points to travel site Kayak.com as a good example. The site shows users a progress bar to tell them how far along it is returning results for flights and hotels. Another tip: Design pages so that the most crucial information, such as prices and product details, load first. “Don’t put the most important information in some complex graphic or table that will take several seconds to display,” she says.

Still another tip Drego offers: Design a mobile site so that the first information to load is above the fold so users can see something immediately, even if the out-of-sight lower part of the screen is still loading.

Web access on a mobile phone is slower than on a PC mainly because the speed at which handsets can download data is slower and because of the weaker processing power in phones, says Nikki Baird, managing partner at research and advisory firm Retail Systems Research.

“On your PC at work, you’re probably getting 2-to-3 gigahertz on the processor, compared to the Nexus One smartphone, which has a 1 gigahertz processor, and I think that’s pretty much top of the line in a phone right now,” Baird says. “Then, with data speeds, you’re probably hitting 100 megabits or maybe up to 1 gigabit per second at work, whereas a 3G mobile network, at top speed, hits 2 megabits.” 4G wireless networks close that gap, she adds, but those ultra-high-speed networks are not widely available yet.

As many e-commerce companies navigate their way through mobile web performance, Drego believes more will start making minor adjustments depending on the type of device accessing a site. By looking at the user agent, a unique HTML string that identifies the browser connecting with a retailer’s server, retailers can detect the device accessing a site and make minor tweaks to improve the user experience, she says. For example, they could adjust image sizes and resolution or offer touchscreen options and graphics when the user agent shows a consumer is coming from a sophisticated iPhone and keep the site more simple for, say, an older BlackBerry.

And, experts add, retailers shouldn’t hesitate to point shoppers to a different, richer mobile commerce experience—if one is available.

“Don’t be afraid to say to a visitor, ‘I see you’re an iPhone user, why don’t you download our iPhone app,’” Baird says.

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