"Oh, crap, he's yelling at the phone again," my partner says. "He's your father, do something," she tells my daughter, who learned to tune me out long ago. This relative newbie is just learning. I thought they were both engrossed in the Wii Fit. I thought I had cover to do my regular random spins around the Web browser. I do more mobile reconnoitering of sites on my mobile phone than most people use the voice channel, and I still don't understand why more mobile developers don't see more of the sharp ideas I find at other people's sites. To wit:
Bing Mobile: For all the talk about Bing's Web launch, very few people have spent any time with the very good mobile version. I won't review it here, but there is one little piece I love. It lets me pin to the front page a traffic map of current conditions as well as current weather and local movie listing. This seems like a small thing, and I would really love it if it let me fully customize the front page with such bits of essential data. But I think a small bit of customization on front pages goes a long way in mobile. And while most search portals like Yahoo (see below) offer customization, I like the process here of finding custom material and then just electing to have it ever-present. Expand this idea, Microsoft. I wonder how many other mobile sites could think of one or two pieces of information deeper within their sites that a mobile user would like to have surfaced permanently. Let a user pin a must-have bit of information on your front page and he will start seeing you as a service and not just a site.
Speaking of personalization, AOL Mobile goes one better. It lets you toggle and even reorder the links on its home page to Twitter, horoscopes, movie listings Facebook and many other direct links. It seems to me that anything a mobile Web publisher can do to minimize clicks for a user, even if it involves taking him away from your site, raises the value of your site.
And furthermore, when it comes to surfacing your most valued content, try going to NPR.org's mobile site for one of the best examples I have seen. Right there at the top of the landing page is a link to audio of the most recent hourly news update. Which raises two questions. Why can't more mobile sites figure out what their users are coming to their site for and tattoo the thing to their forehead the way NPR.org does? Second, why aren't more sites leveraging their audio that they have? If you are a local radio station or a site with short podcasts why wouldn't you surface those assets on (wait for it) the device that is used predominantly as a voice channel? Some sites need to stop and look around themselves to understand the basics of their surroundings. You are on a phone. And while getting into the Zen of phone-ness remember that any site can include a click-to-call link that can hook users into the voice channel itself to get audio feeds that way.
Why is branding relegated to the logo? Only a handful of sites I know attempt to iterate their design identity throughout the mobile experience. The best at this is Financial Times. The m.ft.com site has the same beige background as the full site and other iterations of the brand and shares the same type faces and chart look and feel. I often find myself on mobile sites in mid-scroll in an article and I can't recall where I am. There are no visual cues about the brand delivering the information to me.
Why aren't more publishers mixing up the ad placements? Did someone canonize the home page leaderboard? This ad unit is annoying enough on standard Web landing pages. On a mobile page my eye quickly skips beneath it to find the precious little space it leaves for the site's brand, then splash image and then headline. Try this approach that People.com uses at its m.people.com mobile site. Pull the leaderboard down just beneath the scroll line of the first screen on the landing page and then reiterate it in the standard leaderbaord position on article pages. The internal pages can bear the load better and mixing up the location made the ads more noticeable to the eye. Or at least that is the case in this focus group of one...crank.
Let me take things off as easily as I put them on. One part of personalization is letting me customize things like Yahoo's new mobile page. It does a wonderful job of letting me add news services, emails, social networks, etc. But it is very selective in what it lets me remove altogether. I don't want horoscopes and I don't' want to "Stay Connected," so let me remove those categories altogether from the interface. It will make my mobile experience better.
Grow a pair. There is a big difference between experimenting with mobile and experimenting on mobile. The former is just an excuse to smoosh or reiterate your Web site on a handset. The latter is about taking the opportunity of testing ideas on a fledgling platform where habits and conventions are not set. To wit, one of the best radical surgeries I have seen performed on a brand on mobile is The Daily Beast. The mobile site simply excises the Daily Cheat sheet from the main site and makes that the sum total of the mobile presence. None of the usual columnists or cool photo features are here. They dared to locate the one content element that seemed made for mobile and they mobilized it. No apologies. No hedging their bets. This may very well be a bad idea, but it is a really interesting one. Better still they have a time machine feature where you can tap a calendar date to bring in the stores from the past.
I realize now after a full column of grousing about the small sins and minor triumphs of mobile web design that I am startignt o pick up the cadence of Andy Rooney. This is a good place to stop. And the ladies have finished their sundry ostrich and swan poses on the Wii Fit.
"Did you just tell your iPhone to grow a pair of balls?" my daughter asks.
I ask them to give me a minute, because I just have to power up the phone and find out. There must be an app for that.