Mobile First? No, Customer First
The brand website still has a major impact on the customer experience, according to some experts. So, where does that leave mobile? Susan Kuchinskas examines the latest wisdom for mobile.
A new report from Altimeter Group, Creating a Customer First Web Experience, advises companies to go back to the basics and redesign websites to serve the customer—not the company's ends.
The report says that the website--with the exception of the mobile app in some cases--is the only digital channel that can perform all three customer-facing functions of sales, service and marketing.
What about mobile first?
Altimeter analyst Omar Akhtar, the report’s author, acknowledges that this bucks conventional wisdom. "There's plenty of internal debate about this," he says. But he would not make a blanket recommendation that every company be mobile first. "If you have a single use case that’s great for mobile, mobile first makes sense. For example, if someone is looking for a restaurant, entertainment or transportation, mobile first makes sense there."
Besides, while eMarketer expects mobile app usage to continue to grow, the total number of apps used keeps declining, with usage concentrated within social networks, Google, maps and messaging.
Says Akhtar, "Companies have to ask themselves whether they want to go through the pain of developing or redeveloping a mobile app that has to fight for attention when people could just as easily go to their website. We’ve gotten better at making the website do stuff on mobile rather than having to have a mobile app, so the impetus to create one is not as strong as it used to be."
And even mobile-native businesses like Uber need a bit of web presence, Akhtar points out. You can still go to Uber.com, where it suggests you download the app. But you can sign up to be a passenger or a driver on the website, as well as find out how it works and where it's available.
Changing mobile imperatives
A mobile strategist could be forgiven for feeling a bit of analyst overload. Every year seems to bring a new imperative.
In 2016, Accenture Consulting retail management consultants Andrew Carlisle and Spencer Terry wrote a report titled Retailers Need to Adopt a Mobile First Approach. "Mobile should be at the heart of digital strategies and digital product development. This mobile-first mandate is arguably the most significant consumer trend of recent times," they wrote.
But there wasn't even clarity about what it meant to be mobile first. This concept originated as a design approach, first outlined in 2009 by Luke Wroblewski. His idea was that designers should design for the smallest screen first, and then add more features and content for bigger and bigger screens.
The alternative, which is still commonly practiced, is to design a fully functional desktop site first and then strip away features for smaller screens. This concept has morphed into mobile-native—with apps being the primary mobile-native experiences.
Now Altimeter advises forgetting all that and becoming customer-first. Yes, really.
What is customer first?
Akhtar identifies five elements of a customer-first experience—across web and mobile:
1. The content is focused around problems a visitor would be trying to solve, rather than on showcasing the company and its products or services. For example, the City of Boston's website is organized around themes such as street cleaning, paying taxes or getting a transit pass, rather than by department.
2. The content is personalized in some way, whether by location, demographic or previous behavior. An example is Burton, which shows people different garments on its home page based on local weather.
3. The brand experience is the same across different parts of the website and also across devices, so that if a customer starts a process on one device, it can be completed on another instead of having to start over.
4. Navigation is minimal and seamless, so that a site visitor can find everything she might need to do from the home page and from other pages.
5. Company-centric jargon is replaced with common language. Ideally, terms are based on those most likely to be searched for or used by customers. For example, the City of Boston planned to use "garbage" but research showed that site visitors were more likely to search for "trash."
Changing the center
While these guidelines may seem clear and good, brands are not well organized to implement them, according to Dustin Engel, head of analytics and data activation at PMG, a digital agency based in Fort Worth.
Companies still are organized operationally, he points out and, more crucially, the teams in charge of the mobile and web experiences are rarely the same. "You have two parallel paths, both [with people who are] trying to fulfill customer expectations but rarely acting in synch," Engel says.
He identified two companies that stood out in terms of creating a customer-centric experience on web and mobile. The first is Amazon, the paragon of personalization. The second is Trunk Club, now owned by Nordstrom. The latter had the advantage of being born in the mobile era, so it created the mobile app and web experiences together.
"The biggest challenge in accomplishing that is what happens inside their own walls. An executive mandate is the starting point. Beyond that, there's a need for the next few layers down to have those marching orders and make it actionable," Engel says.
Akhtar now talks about the "mobile presence," rather than specific technologies. He says, "The website should be mobile-optimized, but a mobile app doesn’t replace a website."
Meanwhile, Engel advises his clients that while they still have a window of three-to-five years where mobile will be the primary channel, "Then you have to prepare for what are the things that are on the fringes but in five years will become important."
It's hard to imagine, but there will likely come a time when brands that have congratulated themselves on being mobile first—or mobile native or whatever—may be behind the times.