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How to tailor your school site for mobile web users

A mass-notification system can call parents about a survey they can fill out online via the mobile web.
A mass-notification system can call parents about a survey they can fill out via the mobile web.

With smart-phone use exploding in the U.S., it’s only a matter of time before having a mobile web site becomes a necessary component of school communications.

Used as handheld computers, smart phones are changing how Americans consume media. According to the Pew Internet and American Life project, 40 percent of adults now use mobile phones for internet access, eMail, and instant messaging.

Other popular non-voice-related applications include texting, playing music and games, recording video, and taking photos.

This trend isn’t just for teens and tweens. When it comes to using mobile applications, 18- to 29-year-olds are leading the way, particularly African-Americans and English-speaking Latinos, according to Pew research. Soon, experts say, all cell phones will become smart phones.

Not surprisingly, mobile web browsers have proliferated quickly to meet this new demand. When a company, retailer, or organization doesn’t have a mobile web site, the browser will try to access the desktop-oriented site.

Unfortunately, sites designed for a 15- to 24-inch screen and platforms that easily support complex programs such as Flash or Java don’t do well when reduced to postage-stamp size. After all, even the iPhone 4G screen is only 3.5 inches.

These pint-sized screens require a different approach, one that also recognizes the limitations of touch screens and miniature keyboards. As anyone whose thumbs have hit the wrong app or bungled a text message knows, on-the-go communications must be simpler, faster, and less graphic-intensive.

According to Taptu, a search engine designed specifically for touch-screen phones, 440,100 web sites now offer touch-friendly content, representing an annual growth of 232 percent.

While some tech gurus argue that the increasing power of smart phones will make mobile web sites obsolete, the reality is that most users don’t have the time or patience required to access desktop-oriented sites.

As a result, mobile web sites need to be designed and optimized for smaller screens with less-than-stellar resolutions.

The key is to tailor, personalize, and repurpose information in a way that leverages these tools’ unique benefits. Simply moving content from one medium to the next is a prescription for user frustration.

Here are some tips for creating content and web sites that take advantage of mobile phone features.

  • Recognize that mobile users are different than desktop or laptop users. If they’re checking you mobile site, they’re either trying to find time-sensitive information or killing time during a meeting or between appointments. Set realistic goals and develop an action plan that helps focus your efforts more strategically.
  • Purchase your “.mobi” domain name. Even if creating a mobile web site isn’t an immediate goal, purchasing your “.mobi” domain name or names makes good sense. If nothing else, you can prevent others using your school or district “.mobi” domain for nefarious purposes.
  • Use RSS feeds. Really Simple Syndication can feed content to your mobile web site automatically. As with traditional web sites, offering breaking news and frequent updates are key strategies for building return visits and audience share. Make sure to post either a permanent 301 or temporary 302 redirect on the traditional web site whenever content is being shared with the mobile site.
  • Less is more. Simplify the content and design to speed download times and to make it easier to find information while using a touch screen or mini-keyboard. Fewer keystrokes, pinches, and touches means mobile users can get what they need with minimal frustration and retries. Because people only have time to type in one- to three-word searches, align keyword searches accordingly.
  • Interactive is in. Smart-phone users typically have access to a camera, cell phone, text messaging, GPS, and other tools. Use and combine them to keep users interested. For example, a mass-notification system can call parents about a new survey they can either fill out online via the mobile web or by using their cell phone keypad or touch screen.
  • Navigation should help, not hamper. If a school is on lockdown, frantic parents will want this information at the top of the screen, where it’s easiest to find. Less urgent information should be organized into categories and posted in list formats with simple bullets or access points. Offer a search function on every page. The main navigation bar or tools should use “access keys” that enable users to punch in a number on their keyboard to get content. Phone numbers should be accessible by clicking a link.
  • Offer information, not animation. Keep more memory-intensive content such as photos, graphics, and videos on the traditional web site. The goal is information, not animation, for mobile web sites. Long download times, always a pain, are worse when experienced while on-the-go. Keep file sizes low on every page to optimize access and download times.
  • Deploy text messaging strategically. Need to remind parents about the science project due tomorrow or the PTA’s project to replace tattered media center books? Try text messaging. In 2009, the American Red Cross raised $22 million via text-based donations for earthquake relief in Haiti.
  • Show interest in what mobile users are doing. In communications, context matters. Because many mobile phone users are literally moving through time and space on “planes, trains, and automobiles,” content should be matched to their needs. For schools, this means posting the addresses of schools, special events, meetings, and athletic competitions as well as the time, date, and location. That way, smart-phone users can tap into their GPS to get directions.
  • Explore free mobile web site solutions. Google, mobiSiteGalore, Yahoo, and other search engines and web sites offer free tools can help you create mobile-friendly web sites and convert content from your traditional web site and RSS feeds.

If this all sounds a bit overwhelming, don’t worry. Trying to keep up with new and emerging technologies is challenging work, especially with budget cuts thinning the ranks of communications and IT personnel.

Thankfully, aggregators such as Google Buzz, Spindex, YackTrack, ConvoTrack, and FlavorsMe can help you update mobile web sites and social media networks simultaneously.

There’s also time for experimentation. With businesses slow to catch on to the need to design and deliver content specifically for mobile media consumption, schools have some time before employees, students, and parents start demanding it.

By starting now, you’ll be ahead of the game when the pressure is on to really deliver mobile content effectively.

Award-winning eSchool News columnist Nora Carr is the chief of staff for North Carolina’s Guilford County Schools.

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