July 5, 2011, 3:32 PM

No mouse in the house

Tablets offer a different style of browsing, and retailers must compensate, Forrester says.

Lead Photo

Forrester Research Inc. projects the number of tablet PCs in use will soar from 10.3 million last year to 44 million in 2015. And Forrester showed in a recent survey of tablet owners that they spend more time browsing the web via a tablet web browser than they do using apps. So as the number of consumers browsing sites on a tablet skyrockets, retailers will be under increasing pressure to ensure that it’s as easy to navigate their e-commerce sites on tablets as on PCs.

“While people spend a lot of time browsing sites on tablets, the simple truth is that sites weren’t built specifically for these devices,” writes Forrester Research senior analyst Vidya Drego in a new report titled “How to Make Your Web Site Tablet-Friendly.” “As a result, unintended usability breakdowns hamper most web site experiences on tablets today.”

In the report, the research firm offers five tips for merchants seeking to ensure tablet users get the best possible site experience.

First, retailers should consider alternatives to the Flash programming language. Apple Inc.’s mega-popular iPad, which owns the tablet market, does not render Flash, and a great many e-commerce sites use Flash for videos and other site components. When an iPad browser hits a Flash element, it displays an empty box. As a result, retailers should use alternatives to Flash, Forrester says, such as HTML5 for audio and video streaming and JavaScript and Cascading Style Sheets 3 for animations.

Some retailers were quick to act on the issue of Flash. “We were very aware of this issue early on and within a few days of the iPad being released we had created static images to render on devices that don’t support Flash to maintain a better experience on the iPad, since two main features on our home page are Flash slide presentations,” says Patrick Livingston, director of e-commerce site optimization and new ventures at The Golf Warehouse, operated by Redcats USA.

To offer an optimal tablet browsing experience, merchants should also simplify complex mouse movements and actions because touchscreen devices do not support mouse actions like hover or double-click, Forrester says. Designers should stick to scrolling, panning, and selecting or clicking on elements to cater to consumers using touchscreen devices like iPads, the firm recommends.

Further, increased spacing between interactive elements can make moving around a site easier on a tablet, Forrester says. “Most interactive elements like drop-downs, links, radio buttons and check-boxes were designed for mouse input, not finger taps,” Drego writes. “As a result, many of these elements are spaced tightly and result in mis-selections or misfiring when controlled via a touchscreen.” More space in and around these elements should reduce errors, she adds.

In addition to spacing, increasing the size of text and other elements of a page can help tablet users better navigate an e-commerce site, Forrester says. “Tablets vary in their screen size and resolution, and while most allow users to zoom in to better view content and functionality, zooming in repeatedly to see and interact with a site can get tiresome quickly,” Drego writes. “Increasing the size of key elements including headlines, category names, navigation elements and body copy can help users quickly scan content without zooming in. This has the added benefit of making a site easier to use from a PC as well.”

The Golf Warehouse is one retailer considering a size change because of the iPad. “Especially in our site navigation presentation,” Livingston says. “Under a category, like equipment, we pop up all of the sub-categories and have considered making a change for iPads to make these text links larger and easier to use without requiring the user to zoom in on the pop-up.”

And finally, because most tablet users switch the orientation of the device between vertical and horizontal views, retailers should avoid using a fixed page width because it can result in content that renders too narrowly or widely for the device, Forrester says. Not fixing a page width for a tablet-optimized site allows the site to render across the complete width of a tablet screen, whether the tablet is held in a horizontal or vertical position.

Forrester Research says following these five tips can leave tablet users satisfied with an e-commerce site. It adds e-retailers should be on the lookout for problems that can be fixed to ensure customers are happy.

“Sites that are seeing increased traffic from tablet devices should look for patterns in their analytics data that can help them understand why consumers are visiting their site or where severe problems may exist,” Drego concludes. “Looking for content or functionality commonly accessed from these devices and identifying patterns like frequency of access, time of access, and length of access, among other metrics, can help you make smart decisions about what pages or task flows to focus on making tablet-friendly.”

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