Planning for mobile

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Charlie Rapple provides some tips for publishers and others as they seek to develop a mobile presence

The relentless growth in mobile device penetration and usage is convincing many providers of scholarly information and related services to develop some kind of mobile presence. With pressure to go mobile mounting on all sides, where do you start?


Because the mobile environment is changing so rapidly, the fundamental needs of your audience are really the only constant around which you can develop a strategy. At the top of your list should be understanding your audience: their workflows, current information habits (and frustrations), expectations and preferences for using mobile devices for information access. Only by understanding what they currently do, and what frustrations they have with information usage more broadly, can you begin to understand what role mobile might usefully serve in the delivery of research information.


It is also important to look at what similar organisations in your space are doing. To do this you should download their apps (and read the reviews), explore their mobile websites, and think about the background decisions and development choices they have made. Test some of these solutions with members of your target audience to find out what they like, what they find confusing or clumsy, and what they are trying to do that isn’t possible.

I don’t think we’ve yet seen a killer app or mobile website for research information or information services – one that really makes the most of mobile capabilities to add new value for users. So your audience probably won’t yet be able to point at a good example and say that is what they would like you to do with your content or service. But exploring some related mobile sites and apps with them will help you understand what is important, what is expendable, and what is missing.

The mobile shift

Mobile information has a different history from that of web information. It was born of a two-way communication channel, whereas web publishing was born out of the one-way communication approach necessitated by the print environment.

What can we learn from the different ways that people use their mobile devices (in comparison to web devices), and the differences in their perceptions of what is appropriate? For example, users in the mobile environment are more familiar with and therefore accepting of microtransactions as a business model, which may suggest new ways of offering content and services.

The paradigm shift to mobile is happening at varying paces among different audience sectors; some potential users are more comfortable with mobile than others. Do the early adopters have any defining characteristics around which you can shape your immediate solution? Create profiles for different types of user and think about what content or service they might make use of via mobile. While your mobile strategy should create a foundation for the long term, it also needs to reflect the pace of the change and provide appropriate support, in the short term, at each stage of the adoption cycle.

Content and function

We have seen a wave of ‘trophy apps’, which are at best fun to play with but typically don’t create sufficient value to retain users in the long term. Rushing something to market can backfire if users don’t like it, so it is important to take time to think about the role your mobile presence will have for you and for your users.

What objectives do you have for your mobile presence: building your profile? reaching (new) users? generating revenue? Your user profiling can influence the content and functionality of your mobile presence. Not everything you do online has to be recreated in mobile, and indeed, you might be able to do new things on mobile or make better use of content that hasn’t found a natural home on the web.

The transition to mobile is comprehensive, but not absolute: just as many readers choose to read in print, so users will continue to use web access on PCs or laptops in some circumstances. User scenarios will fragment and spread across different media, and the ideal is to have the right tools in the right medium, avoiding the clutter caused by trying to be all things to all people in all environments. Taking the time to be selective will also help to keep development costs down and ensure that your solution is well optimised for mobile use, for example. This might be by keeping download times to a minimum.

Business model

The mobile transition gives us an opportunity to recalibrate perceptions about the costs and value associated with research information. Be careful not to undervalue your mobile content and services. If you anticipate that one day the bulk of your usage will be from a mobile device, then your business model for mobile needs to acknowledge (if not entirely reflect) your wider organisational costs, rather than positioning mobile as a bolt-on to processes supported by other formats. Otherwise, when those supporting formats are removed from the picture, your mobile strategy collapses.

Devices and technologies

Most people start their thinking about mobile from the standpoint of devices and technologies. I think that this is giving device choices and capabilities too much prominence in the shaping of mobile strategies. We don’t think about paper weight and spine thickness when commissioning print books, so why think about device limitations ahead of what will actually add value for your audience?

In any case, there is unlikely to be sufficiently comprehensive data about device penetration for your specific audience to make good predictions. After all, it is an overwhelming picture, with different types and sizes of device, different operating systems and codebases, and different types of user experience (for example, apps for download or mobile sites for online use). Audience preferences vary, but not necessarily in a helpfully-segmentable way, and the sands are constantly shifting.

The best bet is to take broadly relevant data from analysts such as Outsell, and cross-analyse it against whatever data you do have or can obtain. Even free analytics packages such as Google Analytics will provide some information about mobile usage of your web content, and simple polls of your audience (e.g. at conferences) can give further context.

There will inevitably be further evolution before the mobile environment begins to settle down (remember how long we were experimenting with online publishing before the PDF achieved its current dominance), so the technology and device decisions you make now aren’t the be all and end all of your mobile presence. Getting the core functionality right will have a bigger influence on your mobile success than the device or technology choice.

Charlie Rapple is associate director of TBI Communications, which provides publishers with consultancy on a range of strategic topics including new technologies for product delivery and communications