October 13, 2010, 1:37 PM

Mobile design decisions are dictated by a retailer’s customers

E-retailers must know their customers’ needs before designing for mobile.

Lead Photo

Nicholas Cole, director of marketing for e-retailer Catholic Co.

E-retailers considering mobile commerce first must determine how they can best serve their mobile web customers and then give them a web site, mobile-optimized site or application that delivers on those needs, said Imad Mouline today at Internet Retailer’s Mobile Commerce Forum 2010 conference in Chicago. Mouline, chief technology officer at web services company Gomez, and Nicholas Cole, director of marketing for e-retailer Catholic Co., delivered their insights into best practices and development experiences during a session titled “Designing for Mobile.”

Mouline says there is no single design strategy that works best for all mobile web sites. An e-retailer has to make a choice on whether to let customers interact with its existing site via mobile, create a mobile-optimized site or design a specialized mobile app. He says an e-retailer with a simple web design without lots of large photos or rich media may be able to let mobile consumers find and interact with the retailer’s conventional web site, but he thinks that isn’t the case with many e-retailers today.

“Especially in retail, you will run into issues in the way your traditional web site works and the navigational paradigms on how mobile works. Unless your site is incredibly simple, you are probably better off optimizing the site for mobile,” he says. 

That’s what CatholicCompany.com decided to do, Cole says. The e-retailer of religious books and devotional products scanned the e-commerce marketplace late last year and considered its design, development and maintenance options. The retailer chose to create a mobile-optimized version of its web site that consumers could access from any mobile web browser, rather than apps that only work on a specific handset, such as an iPhone or Blackberry. It also decided to develop the mobile site in-house so it could control costs and design directly. “We had capacity for our developers to build on our own platform and we chose to go with one site for all browsers,” he said. “In-house we can control design and control costs.” CatholicCompany.com/mobile launched in March.

The site closely mirrors the experience of shopping on CatholicCompany.com. “We wanted to make all those activities available on the mobile site to give them as close to a full site experience on a mobile platform,” Cole said. The mobile site includes access to the company’s 18,000 SKUs via a site search function, images, product ratings and reviews, and a shopping cart. And while the company aimed to replicate the online shopping experience, it also took into account that consumers would be viewing the site on a small mobile screen. It narrowed category selections to the site’s most popular buying areas. The mobile site also uses a lot of links to limit the amount of information that has to load per page, for instance providing links that take shoppers to a product detail page or to customer reviews. Cole demonstrated the CatholicCompany.com mobile web site experience using Mouline’s own iPhone.

Mouline said providing the mobile web user with an optimal experience is paramount. He said consumers are past the point where they will accept longer page load times on mobile sites or mobile web browsing problems. “The days are of saying it’s OK because its mobile are behind us,” he said. He said research has shown that 58% of mobile phone users expect web sites to load as quickly on their mobile phones as they do on their desktops, and that he expects that percentage to keep rising.

A custom mobile app is a third option for e-retailers entering mobile commerce. Mouline said that a custom app may provide for the richest and most controlled experience, but that e-retailers also should consider the demands that puts on the consumer, such as having to download an app. He said e-retailers must consider the value the added functionality of a custom app has for the consumer experience versus the barriers to entry. “You are asking the customer to take that step of downloading and launching your specific app,” he said, adding that such a high-friction deployment is not one every consumer is willing to take on to access an e-retailer’s wares via a mobile device.

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