WAP Rules!

What makes a good WAP site? Now that brands are pouring themselves into the mobile bucket, I get pushed to a dozen destinations a week, and it is clear to me that we are in new territory when it comes to designing to a handset. I see everything from barren text-heavy designs with just a wisp of media branding to bold attempts at reproducing the full desktop experience in a mobile browser. While I process a lot of these sites and try to figure out for myself what does and doesn’t work here, I deferred to an expert to help identify some of the early learnings about the mobile Web. Steve Paddon, vice president of  professional services at Trilibis Mobile, is a WAP guru whose company helped NASCAR and Sprint erect a 200-page mobile portal last year for the NASCAR NEXTEL All-Star Challenge. He drove me through the major checkpoints.

Vote now and vote often. Every Web content provider knows that user polls are among the most basic levels of interactivity that continue to work well after all these years. But there is something about mobile that makes the voting impulse even more insistent. Make sure the vote matters, however, Paddon recommends. “If there is no outcome or no prize or involvement, there is no motivation to participate,” he tells me. If a vote involves something users are passionate about, like a sport, and they can see the results in some way, then they feel a part of the brand.

This follows my new simplistic mantra about phone media -- “connections.” People use this technology primarily for two-way communication to enhance personal relationships, so the marketing has to mimic the basic functionality of the device. If a vote or poll is designed properly, with the right back-end feedback to the user, it succeeds in making the connection bi-directional, something that on some level mimics a phone call. You are not asking them to “vote” in a “poll”; you are asking the user a question that deserves some kind of answer.

Give them something of mobile value. This seems a no-brainer by this point, but not by the looks of a lot of WAP sites. Whether as premium content or promotional freebies, let users access the ringtones and wallpapers that may be expressive of your brand. Give them the goods. When enPocket’s Dan Hodges was on my recent MediaPost Out Front panel on mobile, he told us that 175,000 users downloaded the Pepsi brand wallpaper after clicking through on the Super Bowl mobile banner ad promotion. As Dan pointed out, that is 175,000 people walking around with their brand emblazoned on their cell phones. You can’t buy persistent exposure like that.

There are also some technical fundamentals worth considering: follow the three-screen rule. Scrolling a mobile page just sucks, and users reach their tolerance limit on a page that is about three times the length of the screen. Also, don’t’ give users more than ten options to click on a page, so you can assign each option to fire on a number key. Finally, using a handset’s native text-to-label buttons is nice to accelerate page loading speeds, but in turn you lose control over the page width, and that can produce some ugly WAP results. If you use image buttons, however, Paddon recommends tagging the image names with the actual button function. A lot of networks will fail or load a page slowly so users only see the image tags. Labeling the button image files with their functions lets users navigate even if the page doesn’t load quickly or completely.

Finally, the good news about designing for the mobile Web is that it is still all about the content rather than the constraints of the interface. Most users will spend three to five minutes with a mobile site if they see the value, but if you grab a target that is passionate about the topic there is no apparent limit to his engagement. In some dating and sports-related sites where users are browsing profiles or erecting complex tournament brackets, designers have seen people click hundreds of times on a mobile site.

If the targeting is right and the messaging is deep, then all of the other limitations that guide mobile Web design get tossed out the window -- by the engaged user himself.    

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