Mobile Web Design: Getting to the Point – Part II

Following on from part I, I want to put into practice the principles that I isolated by looking at GMail, Twitter and Facebook. I’ll apply the principles to one of the most common of web applications: the online store. I want to look at three typical online store pages and then go through some ideas about how best to apply mobile web design principles to the pages.

I’ll go through the process of building the site from the ground up… from simple sketches through wireframing and the final design.

I’ve used 240×320 as a guide screen size while mocking this up. Because of the massive range of mobile device sizes out there, it can become impractical to support every single screen size out there. (For a deeper screen-size analysis, the DeviceAtlas Data Explorer does a great job of providing useful analytics such as this). 240×320 strikes a balance of practicality and the assurance that your site will look good on a good set of mobile handsets. It’s important to note here that compared to modern desktop screen sizes, this is tiny; it’s about one tenth of the usual available size. The image below illustrates just how much smaller this actually is:

mobile screen sizes are tiny compared with the traditional desktop.

Step 1: Sketches

I start with some simple paper-wireframes to sketch out an idea of where things will be. I want to design three pages common to eCommerce stores: the browse page, the search results page, and the view item page.

Sketch of browse page

First up is an eCommerce browse page. The browse page is probably one of the first pages that a visitor to an online store will hit. It’s generally linked to from the home page, and it will contain a sub-section of editorial content relevent to a theme or category. Just as with desktop sites, it’s common and important to include strong branding on a mobile site. It shouldn’t take up too much space; a simple logo at the top of the page often works great.

The browsing page serves a variety of functions in an eCommerce context. For the navigation, it’s important to provide a sense of location, so simple breadcrumbs telling the customer where they are come next. Search comes after that and then some listings, some with images, some as links to other sections.

Notice how the main navigation on the site is all the way at the bottom. It’s important to display the most important things first on a mobile site, and extra navigation elements should be left to the end. Finally, an option to view the full version of the site is always useful as not everyone will necessarily want the mobile version, or there may be features on the full site that don’t translate well to mobile.

Sketch of search page

Next I’ve sketched out a sample search results page. Search is probably the most often-used feature of an online store. This page should be useful and efficient at moving the customer along to where they want to go. Some information at the top of the page to show the customer where they are is all that’s necessary before displaying the results of their search. Any pagination is greatly simplified, and extra nav is still down the bottom.

Sketch of view page

Finally, I’ve sketched out the item view page. Viewing an item is the point at which the customer reviews an item and adds it to their cart. Again, this page is all about focusing on the most important bits. The title is displayed prominently, closely followed by an image, author price and the crucial “add to basket” option. Notice here how search is moved to the bottom of the page. Search is still relevent and useful, but it’s not the most important function any more while we’re viewing item details, so we get it out of the way.

These sketches were prepared using the classic tools of web design: pen and paper. For those interested, I used an “edding 1200” marker pen. Some UI designers recommend using a sharpie for wireframes, while others use fineliners. I find something in between is just right!

Step 2: Wireframes

Now that I have a basic outline of how my three pages are going to look, it’s time to refine these into higher fidelity representations of what our final mobile site will look like.

The browse page (above) was pretty much nailed in the sketch. The priority of the elements is spot-on, and the main wireframe just tightens things up. We decided to swap the simple navigation with the search box. Search is probably the first thing that a customer to an eCommerce site will want to use. Just as Twitter displays the update field before anything else on its mobile site, search comes first here.

Reflecting on the search page (above), the single most important thing is the results, so they should be given the highest priority. Any subsidiary elements, such as the search field itself, do just fine below the results. We have kept a one liner that tells the customer what they searched for and how many results there were, although this could be further simplified if desired.

On the view screen, we just tidy up a few elements to get a better sense of how they’ll be positioned.

And that’s it! Wireframes ready to ship to our designer! We used OmniGraffle to prepare these. Microsoft Visio is good if you’re on a PC, or you could skip this step and go straight to…

Step 3: Basic HTML

One of the great things about building mobile sites is that we don’t need to learn a new technology to implement them. Because the name of the game is simplicity, the markup to produce great looking sites can and should be very simple. In addition, most of the newer devices on the market today fully support CSS, so making sites that are not only mobile-friendly, but aesthetically pleasing is simpler than ever.

The first thing to sort out when building a site for mobile is the Document Type Declaration. This wikipedia article has a good explanation of the different DOCTYPES and their justifications, and the reference table in this excellent article highlights the differences between the main mobile markup DTDs. I chose version 1.2, making my page header look like:

I find the HTML Validator plugin for Firefox invaluable while working with HTML. The extension displays a small red X in the status bar of your browser if your page doesn’t validate. You may need to check out Ruadhan’s tip for getting it to work with the mobile DOCTYPE. This post on WAPReview also includes some useful information for working with HTML for mobile.

The process of transferring the wireframes into well-formed, semantic HTML is the same as if it was a regular old desktop-browser based site. One thing to bear in mind is that you don’t really have very much horizontal space to play with. Going with a fixed width layout for a mobile site isn’t really practical because screen sizes vary so much; so a fluid design is preferable. This means that the order that elements are placed in the HTML can more closely relate to the order they appear on the site, which makes things a lot easier to manage.

In constructing the pages, I used very simple HTML, highlighting the important elements and using a h1, h2 and h3 heading structure for headings and titles.

HTML for browse page:

Browse page without CSS viewed on mobile device:

Browse page without CSS

HTML for Search page:

Search page without CSS viewed on mobile device:

Search page without CSS

HTML for View page:

View page without CSS viewed on mobile device:

View page without CSS

It’s worth noting at this stage that the HTML-only version of the site is perfectly passable, and a not too unattractive implementation of the three pages. If you’re on a budget, or feel like being pragmatic, now’s the time to push the site live and start taking orders!

Step 4: CSS

Mobile-based sites can reach the next level with some CSS and javascript. Nokia’s N95, for example, sports a fully CSS-compliant Webkit based browser. It renders CSS beautifully, but it’s a pain to side-scroll through sites designed for larger screens. With a lick of CSS with a mobile device in mind, the browser really shines.

If you’re not doing any mobile browser detection (using something like dotMobi’s DeviceAtlas) then a quick way to add support for a mobile device to your site without changing any html is to use the CSS media="handheld". For example:

While not universally supported, it gives you a quick win to ensure that if a device supports your CSS stylesheet, it will display that one.

CSS is best used to provide better visual separation between the elements on the page, and to fit more on the screen. There is some scope for lining things up horizontally on a mobile screen, and where possible it can be used to ensure that the most efficient use is made of screen real estate. Of course, if you have a flair for design, smart use of CSS will give you a chance to make the site visually appealing, in line with your brand, and not to mention a mobile site that will stand out from the crowd.

Below we show how the site looks with a gloss of CSS. By using colours and rules, we can visually separate the different elements on the browse page, and all pages continue along the same lines, providing a consistent look and feel within the site.

Browse screen with CSS  Browse screen with CSS

Search page with CSS  View screen with CSS

The view item screen neatly combines the layout from the wireframes with the markup from our previous step.

The full CSS can be downloaded below, or from the author’s site at Check out the full CSS stylesheet here.

Step 5: Javascript

One message that I’d like to send home is that it’s OK to use Javascript to spruce up a mobile version of a site, but extreme caution should be exercised. You should pay special attention to gracefully degrade any Javascript you include, since there are still a great many handsets which do not support it. One big advantage that can be leveraged using Javascript, with or without Ajax, is to avoid page refreshes over oft-dodgy EDGE and 3G networks. This can provide an effective technique for providing a great user experience on your mobile site.

On desktop sites, I normally recommend jQuery as a fast, efficient cross-browser javascript library. The compacted version is 54k, and 15k if you gzip it, which is a bit of a hit for mobile browsers, but the code that you need to write is so compact on top of that. 54k isn’t a whole lot to sacrifice in page load time. Google also provide a hosted service for jQuery and other javascript libraries that you can use for super-fast download times. However, I would once again iterate that it should be used with caution: there are cases when page load times over 10k will degrade user experience. You should always try to give your users the best experience, but unless you know that the client supports some technology, then you should assume that it doesn’t.

For the purposes of our sample app, I’m going to use a simple unobtrusive javascript technique to add support for showing and hiding the full details on our item view page. Here’s the javascript:

The last step of the puzzle is to run the site through This will help give you a sense of how good your site will look on a mobile. I missed a few small things, such as a closing </a> tag and not including a <fieldset> tag in the search form. These things may seem rather pedantic, but ensuring that your page validates against is a good way to ensure that there are no upsets to users on certain devices and also to test against any caveats that you may have missed. It’s a free service, there’s no excuse not to use it.

All the HTML, CSS and Javascript for this article was prepared using TextMate, but any good text editor will do!

The sample mockups that accompany this article all get a score of 5 (Good) on There are a few warnings, but these I can live with for the sake of my site. I’ve covered all of the major factors in .mobi compliance. The important thing is to get a balance of functionality with as much compliance as possible. You can check out the compliance for the three pages here. Browse, Search and View

And finally: ship it!

My final message is this: design for mobile devices is not as hard as it might seem at first. Using a few simple techniques, and following a few simple rules, taking a cue from exemplars such as Google, Facebook and Twitter, attractive, useful mobile sites and be put together fast and efficiently. Here are some pointers to take away:

  • Sketch things out first, focusing on prioritising the important elements
  • Keep your code clean and simple, that way it will translate well to mobile devices
  • Use javascript wisely and responsibly
  • Use HTML validators and to ensure your code and site are standards compliant

If you want to use any of the code from this article as a starting point, you can view the sample site or download the code directly from here or from the author’s repository here.

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