February 1, 2011, 12:00 AM

Bye-Bye to Ho-Hum

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Retailers with m-commerce sites or apps can use any of a variety of tactics to ensure strong design does not turn into weak performance.

One strategy is to limit the number of mobile web domains used to create an m-commerce site. Domains are the avenues through which site content travels. A mobile site, for example, might have one domain for content, another for imagery and another for advertising. The more domains, the more chance there is download time will suffer.

"Between two and three domains is reasonable," says Herman Ng, mobile performance evangelist at Keynote Systems. "Anything higher than three means that if any one of the domains is having latency issues that will affect the site as a whole."

Retailers can also minimize the number of objects required to create a mobile page. An object is an element, such as a picture or the text in a product description.

"This is the most basic thing, how much content is on a page," Ng says. "Five to 10 images is a best practice, but no more than 10."

And when it comes to images, retailers can use software to reduce the byte weight of an image, which in turn reduces the load an m-commerce site or app must transfer from a web server.

"You can use photographic software to resample images to reduce the size of an image without losing the quality of the image," Ng explains. "What's more, you can group multiple images using HTML Cascading Style Sheets to reduce server requests; a group of images is just one call as opposed to having to call three or four images. This reduces the number of requests between the device and the web server."

Optimal imagery

Overstock.com Inc. has rotating hero shots on the home page of its m-commerce site. To ensure good site performance, it resamples images to optimize performance.

"The images are then cached to help with subsequent opens each day," says Stormy Simon, senior vice president of marketing and customer care at Overstock.com. Images are cached within the app on the smartphone so they do not have to be downloaded from the server the next time that page is opened, reducing load time.

There is, however, a downside to caching: It means the consumer sees the same image he saw the last time he accessed the retailer's mobile site or app. Bluefly does not cache images, in order to make sure it's putting the optimal products and promotions in front of the mobile shopper.

"You want a mobile home page to be dynamic enough that it is calling back to the server every day so the shopper doesn't see the same thing," Keane says. The challenge is balancing that with performance because rather than caching images on a smartphone that can later be retrieved without a server call, a server call must be made.

"But it is more important to us to control that home screen and load things in different slots and see different things on a day-to-day basis," Keane says. Bluefly relies on iPhone-equipped employees to monitor mobile performance.

A small bill

Retailers considering a dressier mobile site or app will be concerned about cost. But Bluefly, which uses e-commerce and m-commerce technology provider ATG, and The Golf Warehouse, which uses m-commerce provider Digby, both say the cost of expanding mobile design with richer elements and features is small; they direct the design with input from their technology providers and those providers implement the design. Overstock.com and Amazon.com both build and design their sites and apps in-house and decline to reveal costs.

Based on the experiences of some retailers and on prices m-commerce technology providers characterize as minimal compared with e-commerce design, it doesn't take too much time or a great deal of money for a retailer to take its m-commerce design to the next level. And as more non-retail mobile sites—such as news, entertainment, social network and gaming sites—get fancier and more visually appealing, smartphone owners will come to expect a visual feast from all mobile sites.

Mobile design does need to be functional, but with a few tips from e-commerce and some imagination on the part of staff, a retailer can design an attractive m-commerce site or app that enables shoppers to find what they're looking for and make a purchase quickly. Judging by the direction mobile site and app design is taking in other markets, richer design may soon become an imperative in mobile commerce.


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