How students use smartphones, and when an app is (not) appropriate

This is how students actually use smartphones

Gareth sent me this interesting infographic about how students use phones. A few interesting stats stood out for me:

  • 29% of students say they use their phone for learning.
  • 88% say they use it for surfing the web.
  • 78% say they access an academic service using their phone.

Mobile app vs mobile website design: your four options

Once you decide you want to reach users of mobile devices, the temptation may be to create a smartphone app. But often that is the wrong approach.

Here, Paul Boag outlines the four options you may take to reach mobile users. He concludes that when users are trying to access information, a responsive web design – rather than an app – is the way to go.

We’re not ’appy. Not ’appy at all.

The Government Digital Service explains why they are focusing on the mobile web, not native mobile apps, to deliver digital services. The comments section also contains an interesting discussion:

Interesting that you don’t mention what seems to me the most obvious reason not to have gov.uk apps – I don’t spend most of my time interacting with the government. I’m not going to install your app and have it clutter up my phone, demand updates, etc, just to book my driving test (once or twice in a lifetime) or pay my VAT (once a year). This is exactly the kind of occasional use the Web is good for.

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First steps into mobile

I thought I would try and take the advice of Brian Kelly who has suggested that web team members write a post a month about their work. It is particularly interesting that after coming back from IWMW I was struck by just how much focus there was on the mobile web. It felt like it was becoming something we would be getting stuck into sooner rather than later.

Sure enough, since my return I have spent around a week working on how web pages are displayed on mobile devices. It has been a tricky problem to solve, not just because of the complexity of developing a website for mobile devices, but also because of the nature of this particular project.

Integration with mobile applications

The part of the website in question is the new web version of the Student Handbook. In this past, the Student Handbook has been produced as a physical booklet. This year, for the first time, the handbook is being offered on the web — and not as a hard copy.

One of the drivers for this has been the development of mSaint, the new mobile application that is due to launch in time for the start of this coming academic session. The application is being designed to give students access to important information any time, any where. The Student Handbook will be one of the guides incorporated into mSaint.

The challenge has been to make the new Student Handbook webpages integrate well with mSaint without compromising the standard version of the webpages. The mSaint application works by linking to the individual webpages, opening up in a new browser window on the mobile device. As such, these pages need to be displayed without the website’s normal navigation, as this is different to the navigational structure of mSaint.

This has provided us with the ideal opportunity to take our first steps into designing for mobile devices. But it has also posed a tricky problem. We need to optimise these webpages for mSaint without it having an adverse effect on the experience of other users.

Foremost in my mind has been the experience of those who are navigating through the website on a mobile browser, rather than accessing these pages through mSaint. It is (relatively) trivial to create a separate stylesheet for mobile devices. But creating an mSaint-specific stylesheet or section that does not impact on other mobile users has been an impossibility so far.

It looks like for the time being we will have to make do with offering a stripped-down version of the Student Handbook to all mobile users. Perhaps we will put a disclaimer about how the Student Handbook should be viewed on a mobile device via mSaint  — but this is far from ideal. Thankfully, the regular ‘desktop version’ (if that is what you can call it) of the Student Handbook will be unaffected.

In a separate post tomorrow I will write about what I had to do to make these webpages more mobile-friendly.

Next steps

This has been a steep learning curve. There is a lot still to learn. Just as you always learn while developing for a desktop environment, there is more than this to keep on top of for mobile.

The mSaint project has brought mobile into focus a bit more quickly than I was perhaps expecting. We are anticipating that a good mobile experience will come to be expected across the University website, and it will become a larger part of our work over time.