Going Mobile: Web-Based Firms Make Move to Mobile First

While mobile first companies are becoming more commonplace in our smartphone world, legacy Web 1.0 companies and those created before the “iOSphere” and Android apps offered the promise of instant access to consumers have been forced to adapt and change to a mobile marketplace. These older companies were conceived and designed for a desktop web-world.

Now they have retooled with smartphone apps, changing their focus and sometimes, their strategies, in the process.
For this report, some household-name brands shared their insights, trials, and tribulations of making the move to mobile first with Open Mobile’s Robert Gray.
In this first of two parts, OMM takes a look at what it means to be mobile first and how these established web-based companies made the transition.

Companies conceived and developed for the web have been forced to do some serious self-reflection since smartphones are now the device of choice, and the only way in some developing economies, to access the internet. This drastic shift in engagement has happened in less than a decade and has forced these companies to adapt by adopting a mobile first mentality and altering their business models.
The companies that are successfully navigating the sea change from a world-wide web with multiple options to the streamlined, ego-centric mobile first marketplace say the shift starts with a hard look at the core business but includes a mindset change among employees.
John Vars, the chief product officer for TaskRabbit, calls it “developing an organizational mobile competency…It means changing your internal dialogue to emphasize mobile and educating the greater team to think mobile and to understand and internalize the idiosyncrasies of the mobile platforms.”
In other words, rethinking the technical and cultural aspects of the business. Vars explains what he means in practical terms: “On the technical side, this means understanding the nuances of different platforms and devices, adapting to different release cycles, and hiring the right kinds of engineers [and} on the cultural side, it’s things like being disciplined in designing user-interfaces for mobile before--or at least at the same time--as the web, even though web release cycles might be faster.”
OpenTable is an interesting case study. The restaurant reservations website signed on in the late ‘90s and this Internet 1.0 survivor’s desktop site famously offered endless choices for finding restaurants in various locations, reading copious reviews, and scouring menus before booking reservations online.
Jocelyn Mangan, SVP product management for OpenTable jokes that the company has come full circle. After all, it was created to keep people from having to use their telephones. “When the iPhone came out, we were like, ‘This is interesting’, the thought that people would use the same device designed to make a phone call to do the same thing (booking a table) in an app.”
But OpenTable’s convenience factor translated well to the handheld mobile phone and offered new features. Mangan says the device’s geolocation capabilities enhanced their mobile offerings, “Once we realized that people will be holding the device, they’re going to know where they are, and we’ll know about openings around them—that’s a magical user experience. We kind of started with relevance from day one on mobile so we didn’t have to say out loud: ‘mobile first.’
“We realized the value we created for people when they were remote. People in urban cities, especially are going out to dinner at the last minute, they don’t have their laptops with them on the corner in San Francisco when they’re deciding where to eat.”
The OpenTable executive says the company “dabbled in mobile” before the iPhone’s release. She admits it took the company a couple of years before they fully realized the extent of the smartphone app’s effectiveness. Mangan also says it would take less time now because companies can mostly focus their mobile plans on a pair of platforms after a shakeout that left Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android as the dominant players while BlackBerry and Palm faded away.
The process is not always seamless, or quick. Christophe Gillet, director of audience product at Vimeo, says the popular music video site’s move to mobile first “has been a continuous/gradual shift, one we are still making.”
He says the biggest hurdle is “changing the DNA of the company from thinking about desktop first to thinking about mobile…going from desktop with a mature business model to mobile with greater revenue uncertainty.”
On that note, Gillet has a few warnings for companies making the mobile first move, starting with a simple one: “Don’t underestimate the cost.
“One mistake many people make is they try to create a facsimile of their desktop experience on mobile. The first thing you need to ask is, ‘What portions of my desktop experience will users actually want to engage on a mobile device?’”
Gillet says the user experience and ease of use are paramount when developing apps for mobile users. “Typing is a pain, attention spans are low, connectivity can be spotty. You’ve probably got your user’s attention for five minutes max, so get to the point.”
Once a company has gained traction with consumers, executives say it’s important not to lose their trust, or business, by making radical design and functionality changes.
“First and foremost, you need to understand your users’ needs and tolerance—don’t just make assumptions,” asserts Jamie Hull, VP mobile products for Evernote. “A younger company might have a smaller user base that is more tolerant to drastic changes to its app to test major changes in the user experience or new functionality. At Evernote, as our users have matured with us, and integrated us into their workflow, we have to be more careful and thoughtful before making any disruptive changes to our product.”
Open Table’s Mangan says companies need to be aware not only of their internal journey towards mobile first, but also of where their customers are in the process of actually using the app to complete tasks. “For any business the hard part is figuring out what’s relevant. You start with human behavior and look at where tech can streamline or make this experience better.”
She uses the app’s new pay product as an example. “You can pay for a meal, it’s only three screens and is seamless, but to get that mobile experience (perfected) in the phone, you had to go into the restaurant and talk to diners to understand their attitudes and behaviors and see the pattern of how they close out a check.
But as app experiences have improved, expectations have been raised. “Mobile first isn’t just a design exercise in simplification, but rather a shift in mindset to deliver complex, meaningful functionality on smaller screen,” says Evernote’s Hull, adding, “User expectations for what they can accomplish on a mobile device will only increase over time, and the mobile-first mentality of the future needs to understand those user demands and make design and technology decisions accordingly.”
Those decisions won’t get any easier as the stakes get higher, and sometimes a difficult self-evaluation is needed before a company can move forward.
TaskRabbit’s Vars recalls sifting through disappointing data on mobile traffic, which he characterized as “relatively low compared to web traffic” last year. The company’s executives were tasked themselves with deciding how much more to invest in the mobile platform, which was underperforming.
Vars says, “The question was, ‘Is the traffic low because our product is empirically a better natural fit to the web, or is it low excuse our mobile apps are lacking?’ We decided it was because our apps weren’t good enough.”
So the company focused on reworking its mobile experience during the first half of this year. The results? “Mobile traffic has skyrocketed and is almost equal to the web now,
For all the latest mobile trends, check out The Open Mobile Summit 2015 on November, 9-10, San Francisco