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Luke Wroblewski on Mobile Web Design

Luke Wroblewski on Mobile Web Design Image

At An Event Apart in Seattle this week, we spent a few minutes with Luke Wroblewski to dicuss how designers can tackle the challenge of designing for the mobile web.

Luke notes that mobile access to the web is growing by leaps and bounds, with sales of smartphones already greater than sales of desktop computers. He encourages everyone to dive in engage with the mobile web now; it’s going to continue to be a very fast-changing landscape, and you can’t afford to wait for things to settle down.

Luke has published a lot of great content at his personal site lukew.com. He’s perhaps best known for his book, Web Form Design, which came out of his work at eBay.

At Yahoo, Luke became involved with mobile web design issues, and he’s written a book on designing for the mobile web that will be published early this summer by A Book Apart.

Luke is currently working for a startup, BagCheck.com, currently in private beta. You can find him at a number of web conferences throughout the year.

Interview Transcript

Michael: I’m Michael Slater here at An Event Apart. I want to thank Luke for taking the time to talk with us.

Luke: Sure. I’m Luke Wroblewski, better known as Luke W. I have been working on the web for a long time. I got my start at NCSA working on Mosaic, if anybody remembers that, and then spent some time at eBay, Yahoo!, and now am a cofounder of a start-up. Still on the web.

Michael: I think the book that most people know you from is Web Form Design. It seems that forms must have been close to your heart.

Luke: Yeah. Well, eBay was essentially the 28th largest economy in the world or something like that. And it was all run through web forms. We had some power-listing tools, and things like that, but the 700,000 people who were making a full-time living selling on eBay in the U.S., and the $8,000 worth of goods that were selling per second, were through web forms. So we spent a heck of a lot of time working on the details of the web forms. That’s how it got into my bloodstream.

Michael: Now you’re here talking about mobile. What led you into the focus on mobile?

Luke: Well, that actually came during my time at Yahoo! At Yahoo! they had a very big team focused on getting carrier integration on all of these feature-phone platforms for many, many years. It was like banging your head against the wall. We spent all of this effort to generate these contracts, create these really subpar experiences for people because that’s really all that you had to work with, and nobody used it. It was a really frustrating experience.

Then, when we started to see some devices that were actually capable, people started to actually use the web. I got really, really excited. The vision of mobile has always been there. There’s going to be more mobile devices than there are people in the world. They are going to have it with them all the time. It’s going to be connected all the time. That all sounds absolutely lovely, but for the longest time those devices were crap and getting any content on those devices was such an uphill slog. So when a few factors happened, “iPhone” factors, that potential became real and I jumped all in. I am very excited about it.

Michael: Great talk you gave on mobile design. I hear you are working on a book for A Book Apart on it?

Luke: I am. It’s called Mobile First, and it’s generally around that theme. Half of it is about why you should start thinking about mobile before you think about other things, and the other half is really oriented to some of the best practices I talk about in this conversation and at AEA.

Michael: When can we look forward to that?

Luke: They are telling me June or July. So it’s written. It’s in technical review right now and we’ll have to make a couple adjustments, and then all the fun things that happen with books, designing, editing, reviewing, and binding.

Michael: We work with a lot of freelance designers and small design firms and, for the most part, they are still really struggling with mobile. Their clients are coming to them and saying they want a mobile version of their site, and they don’t quite know where to go. How do you suggest someone like that approach it? A typical small business site, a few dozen pages of content, and the customer wants it to be “mobile friendly.”

Luke: One of the things I think mobile affords you is the overall opportunity to simplify everything. Many of the people that are in this situation have legacy sites that they have built up over 10 years, 5 years, or something like that, and they just have those behemoths on their hands. Mobile is a nice reset were you can start small, get rid of all the crud, and build it up from there.

If you see success with that, which if you do this I think you will see some success, then you can bring that back to the desktop. The biggest problem I see is that people want all the answers upfront. They want to have a full mobile strategy—where we are going to be a year from now, and where we are going to be 5 years from now, and what architecture do we need, and all this. They want everything in place, they spend all this time in meetings, PowerPointing, and in a month the mobile environment changes. So it’s all for naught.

Just do something small. That’s what mobile is about, doing something small. And the web, mobile web in particular, is a great opportunity for that because all you need to do is what you have already been doing for the web. You can get a mobile site out there. You can test a couple things. The beautiful thing about testing it is that you have the device in your pocket all the time, so everybody on the team can actually use it all day. You learn really, really quickly and you can get going that way. I would say, “Don’t be paralyzed by fear. Just jump in and try something.”

Michael: Do you recommend that they build a separate set of pages for a mobile site or use the responsive design approach?

Luke: There are a number of ways of doing that and the answer is, it depends. If you have simple text-based content, then a responsive approach can work well, where you are detecting the capabilities of the device and changing things up. If you have something that is a bit more complex, it may make more sense to detect something on the server and serve down different markup.

Then there are other situations, like “I need an app and a mobile site and a desktop site.” It’s really hard to nail one thing down. But again, I think one great place to start is, let’s see what our core assets are, what our core business value would be if it was in the mobile web browser. It’s a real nice, simple way to go. You can just do a little prototype, independent of the main site, and you can learn a lot from it.

Michael: What about testing? It seems we already have this big browser matrix, we have a dozen or half a dozen browsers that we need to test against, and you look at the mobile world and it seems like your browser matrix now went to 50 different things. So is there a subset that is OK as a test matrix?

Luke: Two things that go on there. One is, there’s certain devices and certain browsers that have a disproportionate amount of usage. So if you can prioritize where people are actually using the web and focus on those environments, you can do really well. There are a lot of startups in Silicon Valley where I live that are iPhone-only. Because up until last year, the iPhone represented 4x the network traffic of any other smartphone. And now, at the end of 2010, it was still 1.75x more than the second one, which is Android. And Android has made a lot of strides since then. Those two devices, in and of themselves, represent a lot of usage.

Michael: Can you look at Android as one platform, or do you need to test all the different Android platforms?

Luke: “Keep it simple” is the best advice I can give. During the talk today, I talked about a solution for menus that just uses an anchor link. There’s all these JavaScript menus that you can flip through, with overlays and divs, and then there are these separate page links. If you could just do an anchor link, that’s going to work in a lot more places than an extravagant, fancier solution.

Michael: I am looking forward to your all-day seminar on Wednesday. Are you going to be doing something like that elsewhere that people can go to?

Luke: Yes, I will be at Mobilism in May, in Amsterdam. I will be doing the same workshop. And then I will be doing the talk at An Event Apart throughout the year.

Michael: Thanks for your time.

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