Canadian Web developers review W3C mobile site guidelines

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has published a set of guidelines for designing Web sites to work with mobile devices such as cellphones and personal digital assistants. The reaction from Canadian Web developers is mixed.

The W3C released its Mobile Web Best Practices 1.0 on June 27. The document is available online. The W3C describes it as a “candidate recommendation,” meaning the organization thinks it is stable and wants to encourage developers to implement it, but will await implementation reports based on real-world experience in implementing the guidelines before asking that the document graduate to the next stage and become a “proposed recommendation.” That isn’t expected to happen before the end of August.

The 14,000-word document covers a long list of factors such as page size, navigation, use of graphics and backgrounds, frames, fonts, error messages, cookies and testing. Canadian Web developers are greeting it with a mixture of praise and skepticism.

“It’s saying the right things,” said Mitch Joel, president of digital marketing agency Twist Image in Montreal.

“Standards are good,” observed Tristan Goguen, president of Internet Light and Power, an Internet services firm in Toronto. “Standards get everybody to develop applications in the same way.”

The trouble is, standards for Web-site design seem to have limited influence in the real world.

“Right now there’s a substantial gulf between what the standards say and the way Web sites are actually developed,” Goguen said. There are existing W3C guidelines designed to ensure that Web sites work consistently with different browsers and are accessible to people with disabilities, but Andreas Huttenrauch, a partner in Globi Web Solutions in Calgary, says they are far from universally followed. “Looking at most of our competitors, they don’t even enforce W3C compliance,” Huttenrauch said.

“People don’t pay attention to much when they’re watching the budget or trying to do something out of the ordinary,” Joel agreed.

Web designers should pay more attention to the special requirements of mobile devices, Huttenrauch argued. “There’s a minimum feature set that should be on any Web presentation that caters to mobile devices.” In particular, he said, designers need to allow for the smaller screens and restricted bandwidth that phones and PDAs offer. That means going easy on fancy graphics and simplifying page design. Globi’s favourite approach is to intercept page requests, determine if they come from mobile devices, and respond to those that do with simplified pages designed for those devices’ requirements.

“You kind of duplicate your important content with a dummied-down, simple version,” Huttenrauch said.

On a mobile screen, Joel said, most people don’t want to see a menu of six or seven choices. They just want to see the information they need. This is a challenge for site designers – one that can only really be addressed when ubiquitous search and true bookmarking capabilities come to mobile browsing, he maintains.

Pages for mobile use need to be designed differently, with “the meat to the top” and short, simple navigation tools at the bottom of the page – almost a reversal of conventional Web design, Joel said.

Opinions also vary on the importance of mobile browsing and the need to support it today. Huttenrauch said about 20 per cent of the hits on pages his firm develops come from mobile devices. Joel said there is significant interest in mobile browsing already, though he still described the field as nascent. Goguen, on the other hand, said his firm is not doing any work involving support for mobile devices so far, probably because of its focus on business customers’ supply-chain applications.

Keith Thirgood, creative director at Capstone Communications Group in Markham, Ont., echoes Goguen’s experience. Capstone designs business-to-business sites, and mobile devices have had little or no impact there, he said. “Unless a business is pursuing the youth market, web browsing using mobile devices is a non-issue,” he said. “It’s a technologist-driven red herring.”


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