Mobilism 2013 – Peeling the onion

This is not a recap but a personal resumee of the conference and what it says about the state of the industry. For details of the talks (tons of useful practical advice there) visit the official page with slides and videos: Mobilism 2013 Coverage

Mobilism 2013 - Device Explosion

John Cleveley talking about the challenges of a responsive BBC News

RWD meets mainstream

Even with the mobile revolution very visibly under way in our daily lives, there are still many businesses that need to be convinced why they might profit from a mobile web strategy (according to Mobify’s Dave Shea). Also Responsive Web Design (RWD) is not the “default option” (again Dave Shea) yet. Nonetheless, there is a growing number of big mainstream portals using some form of RWD (like Microsoft or BBC news).

Judging from the talks of Mobilism 2013, RWD is the current weapon of choice for a mobile (aka multi screen) strategy – especially with the ever expanding number of device formats and categories. Separate mobile sites are considered suboptimal for various well-known reasons.

It is not easy to get RWD right. The most prominent pitfall is performance. With RWD, a lot of the complexity of serving to different screens and capabilities is shifted to the client. With web standards still lacking behind this easily leads to long page loading times and sluggish rendering performances. In fact, in some cases RWD seems to add to the trend of ever increasing page weight instead of instilling efforts to optimize the size of code and assets.

Easily the biggest perpetrator are images – especially with more and more devices boasting astronomic pixel densities calling for high resolution images. With a W3C standard for responsive images still a while off, the Javascript solution picturefill by Scott Jehl is a viable replacement for a browser-implemented solution – used among others by the prominent new poster boy of RWD, Microsoft.

But also code sizes should be carefully watched. Conditional loading (Javascript, CSS and HTML) and minimizing the usage of heavy-weight standard frameworks like jQuery were two approaches suggested by speakers during the conference.

If it has a screen, it has a web browser

The proliferation of web browsers to all kinds of devices is a recurring theme of the Mobilism conference. After last year’s TVs, this time  it was game consoles, which were very adeptly put into the limelight by Anna Debenham.

The Stephanie Rieger quote ‘The best browser is the one you have with you.’ nails it best, when trying to understand why kids with Nintendo’s portable consoles torture themselves with a not so optimal browsing experience. In some households the game console might even be the main browser device for the kids and or the grown-ups.

But the crappy hardware and browsers of older consoles is not the only thing that makes them challenging for web designers: Consoles come with a charade of somewhat exotic input methods (gesture, voice, d-pad, …). In this they may easily foreshadow future trends of other devices like TVs and tablets.

Expect the browsing experience to greatly improve with the new generation of consoles for which – in competing with smartphones and tablets – web browsing has become a required selling point.

Can’t photoshop this

Another recurring theme of Mobilism is the changes in the design process affected by today’s multi screen world. With a responsive approach to design, a layout becomes more of a dynamic behavior than a static screen structure. Photoshopped screens are severely lacking in managing the intended experience. Thus, Stephen Hay and Dave Shea both in their talks argued for a representation of the design in actual code.

Of course, this does not mean that paper prototyping during ideation phases should go away. And photoshop still has its uses for early design sketches. A memorable summary was: Don’t design in the browser, decide in the browser.

Amazing new browser APIs – anybody seen them?

Last years Mobilism saw a lot of discussion about APIs. There were high hopes, that a flourish of new standards would bring browsers closer to a native experience and James Pearce talked about Facebook’s W3C initiative for pushing the mobile web experience forward.

This year Facebook has published new shiny native apps for all mobile device classes. And the mobile API landscape is still rather lacking. W3C processes are painfully slow.

Still more alarming are new browser woes in the form of inconsistent APIs. This is most eminently the case for handling touch events. Microsoft again has devised its very own way of doing things. – Peter Paul Koch advises for basic touch handling to “Stick with the click.” See PPK’s detailed take on handling touch events for more.

WebRTC is another conflicted API, the real-time communications API with the potential to give telcos (and VoIP providers) another hearty disruption. Microsoft has its own ideas about VoIP (aka Skype) and therefore pushes a different approach (CU-RTC-Web).

You are so not prepared for what’s coming

Also not a new topic – but to my own experience – a very critical one is content strategy. With companies having amassed thousands of mostly stale or irrelevant content pages over the last decade or so and with information architectures informed more by company politics than relevance for the user, a successful multi screen strategy is not something that is easily introduced.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher in her talk very vividly paints the gory details of this challenge and how to tackle the iceberg.

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