The Most Common Mobile Development Trap: “Porting” To Mobile

Guest author Darrell Benatar is CEO of UserTesting.com.

It seems so obvious: you have a successful desktop app or website and users are asking for mobile access to it. So you rewrite your current product for mobile. You take out the Flash graphics, rearrange the interface elements, change the font sizes and you're done. 

This sort of “porting” approach rarely succeeds. Most desktop apps and websites are carefully balanced products that have been optimized for years to fit the conditions found on a computer: high-speed continuous network connections, large screen, powerful local processing, keyboard, and mouse.

Mobile has none of those features. What it does have are many features not found in most computers including location awareness and a touchscreen interface. Porting an existing product or site to mobile almost always produces an awkward hybrid that doesn't work as well as the desktop version. 

Two Traps When Porting To Mobile

1. Nothing Changes

Have you ever used a mobile-optimized website only to be dumped back onto a desktop-optimized website? That happens a lot. These old-style Web pages force the users to pinch and zoom constantly and require a lot of horizontal scrolling. Users are often intolerant of these half-mobile sites.

2.  Trying To Recreate Your Desktop User Experience

Failure to create a real mobile experience is the kiss of death, so by now, even the most stalwart desktop software companies have done at least some mobile development. Yet that exposes them to the next big temptation: trying to faithfully recreate your software for mobile. It's almost always a mistake.

Your users, of course, will tell you they want the full functionality of your website or app transferred to their mobile devices. In reality, though, mobile device can rarely handle the same features and controls without making things way too complicated. The absence of things like Flash and a pointing device like a mouse make it virtually impossible to replicate a traditional desktop experience in mobile.

Rethink For Mobile, Don’t Port

We've learned a lot from previous software evolutions. From DOS to Windows, and from Windows to the Web, our digital history is filled with companies that couldn't rethink their strategies for the new paradigm.

The lesson from these industry transitions is clear: Don't just reformat your app or website, rethink it. Mobile isn't just a different set of technologies; it's a different set of user behaviors and expectations. Desktop computers are generally used in long immersive sessions focused on productivity or entertainment. The user expects to dedicate some time to the session and is relatively tolerant of complexity and involved processes. 

In mobile, users expect immediate gratification. The user may have only a minute available so they need to get in, accomplish something and get out. That means the basic workflow of an app or website — its purpose and structure — needs to be redesigned with that foremost in mind.

In some cases, it’s best to break your product or site into several distinct apps or mobile sites. (Facebook has been done some of this with Messages and Camera.) In other cases, the right approach may be to focus on only one area of functionality and completely ignore other features of the computer version. Or you can choose a mixed approach, with one app or website that’s feature-rich and another app that's rifle-shot focused on a single important mobile feature.

5 Tips to Avoid The Mobile Trap

  1. Understand what problems users have: Users often can't do this sort of thinking for themselves. Skilled product managers need to focus on understanding the users so thoroughly that they can think on their behalf.
  2. Design for the mainstream 80% of mobile users: Don't design for the technophile. You'll add too many features and make your app and site too complex for anyone else.
  3. Decide which user problems to tackle first — and dump the rest: In mobile, it's better to start with an app or that does a few things well, then gradually add more functionality. Evernote does this particularly well.
  4. Functionality is key: Make sure the app or site works properly and is easy to navigate. Then make that design as beautiful as possible.
  5. Test for engagement, not just usability: Use all the testing tools available to you to make sure that your users will actually engage with the product you release.

If this sounds like a lot of work, it is. Ideally, a company should set up a separate team to focus full-time on mobile issues. That is not always affordable. At minimum, you should have a mobile-focused product manager who spends full time rethinking what you need to do to succeed in mobile.

The transition to mobile is dangerous. By relying on traditional assumptions about what makes an app or website effective, companies leave themselves vulnerable to new competitors who design for mobile first. However, by rethinking — instead of merely porting — their mobile apps and sites, companies can avoid falling into mobile traps and gain a competitive advantage for years to come.