Mobile Web Secrets of the Stars, Part 1 of a three-part series

It’s no surprise that Nielsen shows a dramatic increase of 36% in the number of mobile internet users worldwide over that past year. What may be surprising is that 14% of this group view sites exclusively on a handheld device, not on a desktop or laptop computer. As the number of mobile-only surfers grows, and mobile computing becomes a part of the daily routine, it will become more and more important to make sure your site provides a good user experience for everyone, no matter how visitors access your website.

So, how is developing a website for mobile devices different from developing a site for desktop computers?
If you’re using good web development practices, your adjustments should be minor. We’ll assume you’re already using web standards, optimizing your images for the web, creating an organized site with simple navigation, and providing clean copy for your visitors. Keep the three following ideas in mind and you’ll be well on your way.

1. Keep it simpler.
With slow download speeds on some mobile devices, you need to keep it small. Provide minimal navigation at the top of the page, limit use of large images, and provide a text equivalent for each image. Serve up information in small pieces over a series of pages. And, don’t have an auto refresh or anything that requires repeated downloads from the network.

2. Design with device limitations in mind.
Make sure your website doesn’t use any of the known hazards of mobile devices. Limit scrolling to one direction, don’t rely on fonts or colors as a way to distinguish between elements, don’t depend on cookies, make sure the site works well with or without CSS, don’t use pop ups, and avoid Flash and JavaScript.

3. Design with device capabilities in mind
Mobile devices do some things better than desktops  and laptops. For example, you can customize your site for mobile phones by making phone numbers dial when clicked.  Or, you might want to include capabilities to send and receive MMS and SMS messages on your site.

Test your site on as many devices as you can.
There is an ever-growing number of smartphone operating systems, each with its own web browser: The biggies today are Symbian, Blackberry, Windows Mobile, Linux, iPhone, PalmOS, and the recently released Android OS. While you can run your code through a validator and check your site with online emulators, there’s no substitute for testing your site on actual handheld devices.

If you don’t have 6-7 extra smartphones lying around, don’t be shy—ask your friends to let you take a peek at your site on their phones. If you’ve done your job right and followed the three steps above, it should look awesome!

If you want more information, take a look at the the Mobile Web Best Practices 1.0 guidelines, developed this year by the W3C, the international organization that develops standards for the web.