The 3 most important questions for building a successful website

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told by web development teams that a public facing web site must be okay because there haven’t been any (or many) complaints. True story. Okay…sure, that is one way to measure success. But now that I’ve called this out, most of you will likely agree this shouldn’t be the first metric you look at.

Websites need to be looked at through the lens of our users. I think people take things personally when they visit a website. Web surfers form expectations based on all the other sites they visit as they go about their day, it’s not just about your website. If you want them to come back often, they need to like using your website. It’s similar to anything else in life. If it’s frustrating to do something then you’re not likely to keep doing it over again for very long.

An excellent website that fosters long term loyalty will easily answer three questions:

  1. How easy is it to find what I want?
  2. How long did I have to wait for the pages to load?
  3. Did the website work on my particular device?

You may, in fact, have the most awesome, beautiful GPU intensive website ever built. However, if people can’t find what they want or if they have to wait too long to get it, or it just didn’t work on their device of choice then you’ve lost them. For example, if you are monitoring your website stats and notice a shift from iOS-based devices to Android, then you’d better make sure your website works on Chrome.

Certainly there are many, many other questions to be asked when building an excellent website and, of course, I’m oversimplifying things quite a bit. But the nice thing about these three questions is you can always swing the conversation back to them. Use can use these as a tuning fork to help build a solid foundation for success.

I think we can all take lessons from 3rd party travel websites. These websites operate on thin margins and they have to do only one thing to be successful: sell as many travel packages as possible. There is one thing that is absolutely consistent across the successful travel sites: the primary call to action is always in the upper left hand corner and it asks the three most important questions right up front. What’s your starting point? Where are you going? How do you want to get there? Bam.

3 Steps for Determining if Your Website is Mobile Ready

Here are three step for helping determine the mobile ready strengths and weaknesses of your existing website. I’ve had a number of conversations from website teams recently asking the question: “Can we reuse our existing site for mobile users?” I was surprised to learn that the individuals asking me the question had, in fact, never visited their own site on a mobile device.

Note, this blog describes steps that need to be address before you decide whether to build for the web or native applications.

Step One – Create a small focus group of company outsiders, friends as well as employees.

  • Gather as many different types of mobile devices as possible including: iPad, iPhone, Android tablet, and several varieties of Android phones. Try to use a combination of older and newer devices. Don’t fool yourself by simply using all of the latest great versions, especially if your web visitors are the general public.
  • Get a mobile projector, such an Elmo or IPEVO.
  • Write down the common use cases, and the workflows associated with them. An example use case might be logging in to your site. And, a workflow would describe the steps a user takes to complete the login process  from beginning to the end.
  • Visit your website and run through the common use cases.
  • Turn off wireless, if possible, and let everyone experience typical internet speeds to simulate, for example, standing in line at the grocery store.
  • Trade off using different devices.
  • Hire a user interface (UX) designer if you don’t already have one. Bring them on board at the beginning, or as early as possible, in this evaluation process.

Step Two – Create a grading system to help assess the experience everyone had with each device.

  • Were you able to accomplish your task as easily and quickly as if you were at your desk with a full-size laptop or computer?
  • Did you have to do a lot of extra panning and zooming in and out to navigate through the use cases and workflows?
  • Was there any functionality that simply didn’t work, didn’t work correctly, or didn’t work as expected on the mobile device?
  • Were there any aspects of the site that looked different or wrong? For example, was all the text the right size? Was everything in the right place?
  • Were you satisfied with the amount of time it took for pages and images to load?
  • Were you able to comfortably use the site when rotating the phone between landscape and portrait views?
  • Were you okay with how quickly you were able to switch between different pages on the website?
  • Were you able to access secure resources without any problems?
  • And, perhaps most importantly, were there any obvious improvements you would like to see made to make mobile surfing experience better?

Step 3. Apply some commonly known mobile-specific conditions to your findings and see if helps to provide context to everyone’s experience.

  • One-handed plus gestures. It’s a fact that navigating a mobile web is significantly different from a desktop browser. There’s no mouse! Mobile browsing is usually done with one hand, while the other hand is used to hold the device. The screen is driven by what are called gestures. Examples of gestures are when you swipe your thumb upward on a page to scroll it downward, or when you use two fingers, usually the index finger and thumb, to pinch zoom the screen in or out.
  • Smaller Screens. And, of course the screens are much smaller than what you would find on a desktop or laptop. Different devices have different resolutions. And, navigating a full website can seem more cumbersome as you use gestures to navigate around, in comparison to the desktop experience of seeing the entire page, and using your a precision mouse to whip through the different links on a page.
  • Download Speeds. Download speeds on mobile devices vary considerably compared to your work machine hooked up to a reliable local area network (LAN). A site that seems zippy on your work machine, may load much differently on a typical smartphone. Also, for some older phones they may have much less processor power and that may lead to the perception of slower download speeds as the CPU chugs through displaying the page.

How do I interpret the results?

When you are done compile, discuss and analyze the findings with your internal teams and stakeholders.

Good. If most testers successfully navigated the majority of use cases and workflows then you are in good shape, and you may simply need to do some additional tweaking to your site.

Not so good. However, if most testers had unsatisfactory experiences then you’ll need to spend more time looking more closely as what worked and what didn’t work. You may find workflows that are great on a desktop machine that are clumsy and awkward on a mobile device.

Don’t be surprised. Portions of your site may have to be redesigned. You may not be able to include everything that’s in your full site into your mobile site. You may have to spend a lot of time optimizing the site to speed up page load times. Pay special attention to functionality that didn’t work on mobile. Mobile web browsers have well known limitations compared to full browsers. Looking at what didn’t work may help you decide if you need access to native device capabilities.

You’ve just taken a huge first step towards helping your team set the stage for stepping into the mobile world.

10 Tips for New Web Developers

If you are just getting started building web applications, these 10 tips are fundamental to learning how to build really great apps and to being successful in your new career.

1. Build at least one application on your own that wasn’t required in class and include a complex user interface component, such as a widget, and database access.

2. Understand how to use debuggers, browser debugging tools and breakpoints on IE, Chrome, Firefox and Safari for desktop and mobile.

3. Practice building your own prototype apps using the most common JavaScript libraries. The best way to learn is to roll up your sleeves and work on it. Get your curious on!

4. Understand how to use a code repository. Try posting a few of your prototypes on github.

5. Read books written by the experts. When done read some more. Learn by example.

6. Participate by asking and answering questions in industry forums such as  Stack Exchange. You’ll gain more confidence as time goes on.

7. Understand how basic coding patterns such as loops and HTTP request/response can affect website and mobile performance.

8. Learn the difference between client and server-based code.

9. Practice problem solving by testing your prototype apps against the different major browsers. You will really learn what works and what doesn’t work. In most problem solving there is no exact answer, but knowing how to come up with potential solutions will save the day.

10. Research a problem first, then ask questions. Your colleagues that have been coding for a long time know when a question wasn’t well researched beforehand. You will learn best by trying to solve it. It can be like a puzzle and you have to figure out how the pieces fit together.

11. Yep, I know I said 10 tips, so this is a bonus. Read and learn about user interface design, and if possible work with an experienced UX engineer/designer. UX, or user interface design, makes the difference between an okay app and an excellent app.

7 Critical Things to Know When Building Any Mobile App

This blog post builds on concepts proposed in an earlier post about not all mobile apps being created equally. If you are a developer who is in the process of migrating to mobile this post is for you. It’s intended to raise awareness of important items to consider in your requirements. My goal is to help you identify some of the major gotchas early on in the development process and improve your chances for success.

There are many more details to learn on the topics I’ve described below. The good news is that in the last few years the amount of deeply helpful documentation has expanded considerably. Where possible I’ve tried to include links related to each topic.

Touch-based Workflows. Recent research has shown that people use their smartphones more often than web apps, and they spend roughly 80% of their time on social media and games. Because of this and the fact that smartphones today are touch driven and not mouse driven, you have to take that into account in your user interface design. Touch implies many things including gestures and multi-touch. You can toss your old conceptions of user interface design based on desktops and tablets, and check out Android’s recommendations as well as Apple’s. My strong recommendation is to hire a UX designer to help you through building a user interface.

Mutliple form factors come with various screen sizes and densities. Long gone are the days of building for just three main browser types. Now you have to take into consideration iPhones, iPads, tablets, numerous different style androids as well as desktop and laptops. Android defines the following screen sizes and, as you can see, this is quite varied and smaller than a typical laptop or desktop. Those typically run 1024 x 768 or greater.

  • xlarge screens are at least 960dp x 720dp
  • large screens are at least 640dp x 480dp
  • normal screens are at least 470dp x 320dp
  • small screens are at least 426dp x 320dp

This is important to know because an app that looks good on an iPad may not look good, or display correctly, on the four inch display of a Motorola Atrix at 960 x 540. A button that looks correctly sized on one smartphone may look too big on another. A whopping 84% of all Android screens are what Android defines as normal size (>=  470dp x 320dp) and between either medium dpi (~160dpi) or high dpi (~240dpi). But, you still have to take into consideration other densities. I also recommend taking a look at new HTML5 browser-based technologies to help with addressing this problem, such as CSS media queries.

Inconsistent Internet. It’s a best practice to check if internet connections exist and gracefully handle HTTP requests when the internet is down, as I blogged about here.  Depending on your application and needs, you should also monitor whether or not a wireless connection can be made and then allow the application to switch to wireless where possible. Wireless also has the advantage of using less battery power.

Slower Connections. And, on a related note, you can’t always depend on 4G connections having consistent maximum download speeds. Over the course of a user session, the connection speed will vary widely and you should plan for that. I’ve been trying to find some stats on mobile internet quality world-wide, if they are out there they are hard to find. But, we’ve all experience spotty mobile internet coverage. Take this into account if you are transferring large amounts of data between your servers and your app. You should also consider detecting when the user is in an area of greater bandwidth and use that to download more data less often. Use loosely coupled and event driven architectures. Test app load times on various devices and around town and away from your office.

Less CPU Horsepower. While the latest generation of four core phones are certainly the most powerful phones yet. In general, applications and web pages will run slower on phones than they do on your development machine running a desktop browser. Take older generation phones into account because they are usually significantly slower than the newer phones. There are a few workarounds in HTML5 to help with this, in that done correctly they can offload rendering to the hardware. In native applications be aware of memory leaks because, remember, more memory usage means less battery life and applications that can run slower over time.

Support across multiple operating system versions. Remember on Android that the vast majority of users are still running v2.2 – v2.3.7 even though v4.x is currently shipping. You’ll have to do some research on your target market and find out what versions and type of phones they are using. You can’t support everything, but you can make educated guesses. Apple, on the other hand, has a significantly more limited selection of phones and tablets that you have to support, and they do a great job helping you support those.

There are some solutions that help with building cross-platform mobile apps, to go into more detail will take another blog post. Here’s a few: Adobe Flex, PhoneGap and Titanium. Keep in mind that the future of Flex, as a development platform, is being called into question after Adobe open sourced everything but the browser and desktop runtimes to the Apache Foundation. PhoneGap and Titanium offer what is now being called “hybrid” solutions where you can build an application in JavaScript, for example, and then compile that code for native deployments on Android and iOS.

Battery Life. Ah, battery life is last but certainly not least. Be aware of how battery intensive your application is and try to minimize battery consumption as much as possible. The Android online docs have a number of highly information articles on this subject. Smaller app footprint in memory means less battery consumption. Heavy CPU usage means more battery usage. Minimize GPS usage through smart algorithms to help preserve battery life.  Switch to 802.11 wireless connections where possible, since this requires less battery power than 3G and significantly less power than 4G.

So, there you go. I hope these suggestions help. If you have more suggestions based on your own experience please post a comment!

References:

Android Gestures

Android Optimize Battery Life

Android Screen Sizes and Densities

CSS media queries

Android UI Design

Android Model for Best GPS Performance

iOS User Experience

HTML5 Hardware Acceleration

Event-based Architectures for Adobe Flex

Live From Antarctica – the final 7th Summit.

Our team just finished a massive 5 weeks push to building an app for the Romero family, and in particular Jordan, to follow him on his climb of the final summit on the continent at the bottom of the world. You can find the app on his home page today http://jordanromero.com, or access it directly here http://edn1.esri.com/antarctica.

It was actually Jordan’s dream to climb the highest summits on the major continents. And, he is now on his way to accomplish all that…and before his 16th birthday during what is considered summer in Antarctica. I’m amazed at what he has done. I can’t help but think about what he might be able to accomplish in the future now that he has accomplished a feat that very few ever do.

The app is capturing live GPS coordinates (altitude, heading, speed, lat/lon), live weather and it also includes a Challenge component that anyone can take to conquer their own 7 summits on their own time by walking, swimming, running or biking.

I encourage you to check out the app and even take the Challenge!

For the techno-geeks reading this, here is some background info on the technology. GPS processing and ArcGIS mapping backend services were built in C#.NET by AL Laframboise. The Challenge service and REST endpoints were built in C#.NET by Nick Furness. I built the the Adobe Flex/ActionScript client application using Adobe FlashBuilder 4.5, and the ArcGIS API for Flex provided the client-side mapping. The look and feel were accomplished by the excellent help of UX engineer Frank Garofalo in Esri Professional Services. The client app uses a custom dependency injection model at the core, and the skins were built using Adobe Catalyst.