OPINION: Mobility consigns fictional online-offline divide to history

26 Jan 2013

Gareth Dunlop, owner of user-experience consultancy Fathom

In years to come, we will almost certainly look back with sheepish embarrassment on the fact we ever created a fictional classification for online and offline communications and put a divide between them. No such divide exists in the minds of your customers. What’s more, the mobility revolution has ensured any lingering doubt about this can be removed.

It may feel pedantic to refer to mobility rather than mobile but the difference in those two terms illustrates why the line between our online and offline marketing is virtually invisible. Mobility refers to a state of mind, a lifestyle, a set of customer needs; mobile refers to hardware, infrastructure and location.

Why does this matter?

It matters because the difference between a laptop and a smartphone doesn’t lie primarily in the capability and size of the device; rather it lies in the differing needs and aspirations which a customer has when using each. So rather than first asking “what impact does the size of the screen have on my design?” or thinking “what if the user can’t get 3G access to my content?” we must start all of our mobility discussions by asking “what do my users need on the move, what do they need when stationary, and what impact does the difference have on my content planning?”

London 2012 Olympics example

Some insights from the London 2012 Olympics have helped to illuminate the debate. We know that mobile visits across its family of 77 web platforms were higher than expected at 60pc of the 431m total visits during the period of the Olympics. But when we stop thinking about devices and start thinking about lifestyle and content, we get yet further understanding. For users on the move, the most accessed content was fixtures, results and travel information, for sedentary users the most accessed information comprised results, athletes and medals.

This awareness empowers online marketers to make really good communications decisions based on measurable facts. The clear conclusion from the statistics is that users on the move have a different set of information requirements to users on their backsides. It’s not about devices; it’s about information.

Perhaps like me, you observe and celebrate the advances in our understanding of web design year on year. Latest thinking on HTML5 and responsive design represent more important steps on this journey. However, we must never narrowly define these disciplines and technologies as mere facilitation techniques; they require a new mindset. Responsive design shouldn’t just ask how a visual design renders across different devices without also considering how the users’ needs alter across different devices. And this means that we shouldn’t just build responsively for smaller devices, but also consider the opportunity brought about by larger devices (eg, very powerful desktop computers, or internet TV) in some contexts.

For marketers charged with managing brands and seeking to ensure consistent customer experience across channels, we need to wake to the reality that the online-offline divide barely exists and soon won’t exist at all. Digital is no longer a neat subset of customer experience, it’s simply a part of daily life for our customers, whose interaction with us bleeds effortlessly online and offline, driven increasingly by mobility.

Benefit to customers over technology

The technology itself is almost invisible to users. They don’t get excited about the size of their screen, or the amount of memory or processing power they have. They are just glad that they can upload a photo onto Facebook which captures a moment, find directions on the hoof when they’re looking for an address or look up movie times when they’re on the move.

The more we think about the benefit we’re bringing our mobile customers and the less we think about the technology, the more successful our online marketing will be.

Think mobility, not mobile.

Gareth Dunlop

Gareth Dunlop owns and runs Fathom, a user-experience consultancy which helps ambitious organisations get the most from their website and internet marketing by viewing the world from the perspective of their customers. Specialist areas include user testing, usability and customer journey planning, web accessibility and integrated online marketing. Clients include the Irish Internet Association, The Irish Times, Ogilvy, MD Golf and Web Recruit.

Gareth Dunlop runs Fathom, a UX consultancy that helps organisations get the most from their digital products.