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Web designers: Embrace mobile strategy instead of app buzz

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Does your company need an app for that?

Maybe not, but chances are it should embrace a broader mobile strategy so your firm's website plays into the hands of potential customers, e-commerce executives and professionals said.

That's because mobile is becoming a dominant means by which businesspeople and consumers search the Web for products, services, news and entertainment, they said.

"If you asked us three years ago whether we'd be doing this much mobile (development), we'd never believe it," said David Barr, the owner of Williams Forrest, a Lancaster-based Web development company.

Barr's company has developed websites for athletic equipment company Puma and BMW of North America. Williams Forrest also is working on mobile solutions for TopSpin, a New York City charity that raises money to support nonprofits working on children's education issues.

Many companies are getting mobile versions of desktop websites, scaled down so that photos fit the smaller screens of smartphones and pertinent information is there without endlessly scrolling to find it, Barr said. Other companies use the online brochure, which is a basic introduction to the business and contact information.

Mobile sites are becoming more responsive to the user experience, too, he said. That means you have smart sites for smartphones. The websites are programmed to be "device aware," adapting to the type of phone you're using to provide the best viewing experience. Some can even tap into the phone's gyroscope to alter the website based on how you tilt your smartphone.

The result is the same, though: Businesses putting their best face forward by tapping the growing mobile device market.

"Do you force users to your convention, or adapt to theirs?" Barr said.

The added work in mobile for Web-design firms comes from the explosion of smartphones.

Third-quarter global smartphone sales topped 169 million units, about 40 percent of the total mobile phone market, according to Gartner Inc., the Stamford, Conn.-based technology research and advisory company. Smartphone sales grew 47 percent from a year ago, even while total mobile phone sales dipped 3 percent, according to the company.

If your company wants to tap into that on-the-go market, then you need to look at what message is most pertinent and what functionality you want to provide to customers looking at your site while on the go.

"I advise that (companies) walk before they run," said Don Bishop, president of York County-based Web-design firm Affinigent Inc.

To start out, most companies just want a mobile interpretation of their website, which can be three to four pages of the basics — markets served, contact information and contact forms, he said.

Companies should review their website analytics, so they know where traffic is coming from, Bishop said. If you're getting a sizeable chunk from mobile sources, then you need to look at revamping your site for that audience, he said.

"I think just about everyone needs to do a little more," Bishop said. "If you have a business and a website dedicated to it, you're seeing a reasonable amount of mobile traffic."

Websites with mobile-specific features also reduce multiple site maintenance and synchronization, said Josh Miller, a freelance Web developer from Harrisburg. He's done some work with York-based The Usic to get its online marketplace for artists and small businesses going.

Miller works on website databases, which are useful for retailers and wholesale distributors to put catalogues on their sites. It helps manage orders and inventory.

Many companies think about getting their own apps, but in many cases it's not worth it, Web developers said.

Less than 5 percent of apps are still in use 30 days after they're downloaded, Barr said. Those used regularly include calculators, measurement conversion tools and social media. If you're a company, you need to think hard about a good idea people can use all the time, he said.

"Draw a line in the sand," Barr said. "Look at your industry and find something it needs."

If that's not working for you, it's probably best to go back to the basics.

"Start with a mobile-specific site first and see what kind of traction you have before you go out and pay for an Apple or Android (app) programmer," Miller said.

That will save money in the long run, too, Bishop said. Apps have to be built ready for all devices and maintained regularly, which costs money.

However, basic websites are relatively inexpensive – about $500 – and designing mobile elements won't add all that much more, he said.

If your company is not ready for mobile but is doing a redesign of its website, look for a flexible, creative designer with mobile experience, Miller said.

"So if something changes later on," he said, "you haven't painted yourself into a corner."

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