Mobile Web Development

The boom in smart phones equipped with constant internet access and capable web browsers has opened up a new delivery platform for the web. In contrast to desktop browsers, mobile phone and tablet based browsers have less screen space but add new capabilities like geo-location and touch based input. Mobile web users may also have different tasks in mind, whether it is finding search results near their location or getting quick answers to quiz questions. All of this together means that mobile web development presents us with a new set of problems in web design and development.

There's an interesting comment in the W3C Mobile Web Best Practices Guidelines which emphasises the idea that a mobile site should not just be a more restricted version of the full site. It calls this One Web:

One Web means making, as far as is reasonable, the same information and services available to users irrespective of the device they are using. W3C

This idea suggests that the way that we design a mobile website should be to work out the appropriate representation of a resource on the mobile device, and then find out how to deliver that when appropriate. Of course, there will always be web applications that are built mainly to serve the mobile audience, and there will be resources such as high bandwidth video or large image collections that are difficult to display properly on small devices. But the One Web idea is a good guiding principle to consider when designing the mobile version of a website or web application.

Approaches to Mobile Web Design

There are a number of ways to think about the design of a mobile website

  • or rather the design of a website that is expected to be used from mobile devices. To some extent, the approach to mobile web design is evolving as the proliferation of mobile devices progresses. When mobile devices first started to appear there was no specific attempt to design for them; instead, browser vendors tried to adapt browsers to the small screen size so that users could zoom in to sections of the page or provide proxy services to compress and adjust pages for mobile delivery. Since that time, as mobile browsers have become more capable and widespread, designers first looked at how best to adapt desktop pages for mobile delivery and more recently, have started to design first for the mobile platform with the desktop as a secondary target.

This section will discuss a number of different approaches to mobile design, following roughly a chronological path. We must remember here that the mobile web is really only a few years old (as I write in 2013) and so the consensus on the best way to approach the design problem is likely to evolve further in coming years. The ideas presented here are not necessarily mutually exclusive; any one design project might make use of ideas from all of them.

The different approaches relate to the relationship between mobile and desktop versions of websites, rather than how design elements are used in mobile design.

Separate Mobile Website

Perhaps the easiest solution to design for mobile is to build an entirely separate website for mobile browsers to the desktop site. We'll see below how the server might be able to tell the difference between the two, but the assumption is that a mobile browser will be served different pages to a desktop browser. Given this, the designer has complete flexibility in how to design the mobile experience without having to use any common content or code between the two sites. The designer can assume a small screen size and touch interaction in the mobile site and work out how to best present an application in that format.

There is a temptation in this approach to violate the One Web mantra referenced above and develop a mobile site that provides only what the designers consider suitable material for the mobile web user - for example, things you might want to do on the go. While this can be quite attractive in being able to provide customised mobile content, it does turn the mobile user into a restricted user of the site. If they know that your site has a piece of information but you didn't think mobile users would be interested, then they are cut out. They would need to revert to the desktop version of your site (assuming that you allow that as an option for mobile users).

Graceful Degradation

Graceful Degradation is a general approach to web design that says that a design should still be useable if some of the browser features that it relies on are not present. Before the mobile web became an issue, the same principle was applied to desktop web design when talking about support for older browsers that had less support for CSS and HTML standards. The idea is to design for the newer browsers and more advanced features but ensure that the page is still usable in less capable browsers. In the mobile context, we'd ensure that whatever desktop features were used in the application, it would still work on the mobile platform even if it didn't look so good.

An example of what might be done might be an application that makes use of mouse hover events to show help text when a user is filling out a form. Since the mobile platform doesn't have a mouse, the hover event isn't supported and this would not work. In order to degrade gracefully, the design should at least make the help text available in some form to the mobile user - maybe placing it below the form field. In this way, the mobile user is not disadvantaged but the page is not designed to optimise their user experience. To achieve this outcome, the help text could be inserted by Javascript when a mobile browser is detected. The main point is that the site design is approached from a desktop perspective and testing on mobile browsers is done at a late stage with fixes being added where necessary to make it work.

Clearly this approach treats the mobile browser as a second class citizen. However, it does try to ensure that the same information and services are available to the mobile user as to the desktop user (One Web).

Progressive Enhancement

Almost the opposite approach to Graceful Degradation is Progressive Enhancement. Whereas GD designs for the most capable browser and ensures things will work elsewhere, PE designs for the lowest common denominator and adds features based the browser's ability to support them. In the mobile context, the core design would be made to work for both mobile and desktop browsers while being optimised for neither one. Additional features are then added using more advanced features that may be available on the platform.

To continue the example from the previous section, the PE approach would be to design a form that will work on any browser, mobile or desktop, and then add enhanced support for either mouse based or touch based interfaces. This approach immediately levels the playing field between the different platforms because the designer is forced to think about the lowest common workable design as a real entity and then plan enhancements. The provision of help for the form in a better way is now a design problem that can be addressed for each platform; the fact that it needs to be considered as a separate problem encourages the two platforms to be dealt with more equally. Even if the mobile platform is ignored for enhancement, it still inherits the solid core design.

The core design in a PE project is likely to be based on good, semantic HTML that provides suitable hooks for CSS and Javascript to work with. Using semantic HTML is appropriate because it uses the right markup for the document structures being encoded. If this is done then enhancements can be applied semantically too - for example, lists with a certain class can be made to expand and contract via the mouse or touch input. This encourages a more consistent design style where design decisions are made based on the semantics of the content rather than as ad-hoc elements in a specific page.

One of the keys to progressive enhancement is the detection of browser features. We'll see below how we can detect whether a request is coming from a mobile or desktop browser, and this might be the primary cue for particular customisations in the mobile space. However there are many other browser features that are implemented to varying degrees on different platforms. One common approach is to use Javacript to detect browser features. This is more reliable than guessing based on the platform type because Javascript code can run in the browser to test for the presence of a certain feature. This will then continue to work when a particular vendor adds functionality to their browser. Compare this with the old-style browser detection which tries to block access to older browsers but ends up blocking Chrome and Safari as well because they weren't around when the code was written. Since feature detection is a common task, there are libraries to help. One of the most useful is Modernizr which is an HTML5 feature detection library. This can be used to detect individual features that you might want to use in an interface, for example, geolocation:

if (Modernizr.geolocation) {
  // let's find out where you are!
} else {
  // no native geolocation support available :(
  // try geoPosition.js or another third-party solution
}

(example from Dive Into HTML5 | Detecting Browser Features)

Note that this is a client side technique which fits with the progressive enhancement idea that the core content page is served up the same to all devices and client side code runs to customise it for different browsers or platforms.

Here are a couple of references for further reading: Understanding Progressive Enhancement on ALA; Graceful Degradation versus Progressive Enhancement on Web Platform Docs.

Responsive Design

The approaches described so far have provided different features or design elements based on whether the platform was desktop or mobile - a binary distinction. Another approach called Responsive Design removes this binary divide and instead concentrates on adapting the design to the size of the browser window. The main technique that enables this is the CSS3 media query which allows the designer to select different stylesheets based on various properties of the display such as width, height and resolution.

In some ways, responsive design is an example of progressive enhancement since it starts with solid semantic HTML markup and then adds a stylesheet appropriate to the display size. It avoids the distinction between mobile and desktop and so means that designs will work on whatever new platform might emerge between these two extremes. A responsive design enables a user to view the mobile version of a site on the desktop just by shrinking the browser down to a mobile-like size.

As an example of a media query the following code loads a default stylesheet for all 'screen' displays and a second stylesheet for those screens with a width of less than 480px.

 <link rel="stylesheet" type="text/css" media="screen" href="default.css">
 <link rel="stylesheet" type="text/css"
  media="screen and (max-device-width: 480px)"
  href="smaller.css" />

Using this technique we can have a base level stylesheet (eg. to define default colours and fonts) and then a specific stylesheet for browser windows of different sizes. As a designer, I can then work on these different browser sizes explicitly to design for each of them.

The responsive design approach was perhaps first described in Marcotte's ALA article.

Browser Detection

One of the first design decisions when adapting an existing site for use by mobile browsers is whether to split the site into mobile and desktop versions. In one approach, the mobile version of the site is given its own URL space to differentiate it from the main site. So, for example, http://example.com/ might present its mobile site at http://mobile.example.com/. The alternative approach is to use the same URLs for both sites but configure the web server to return different content to mobile or desktop browsers. There are advantages in each of these approaches which we will discuss later. This section is concerned with how they might be implemented.

The first part of the solution for both approaches is to know whether a request has come from a mobile or desktop browser. The information required to make this decision is contained in the HTTP_USER_AGENT field in the WSGI environment which is derived from the User-Agent HTTP header. The format of this field is simple, it states the browser product name and version and the browser rendering engine. For example, "Mozilla/5.0 AppleWebKit/536.5". However, the story is a little more complicated since websites have historically used the user agent string to deliver more advanced features and during the 'browser wars' in the 1990s it was common for Internet Explorer to claim to be Mozilla in its user agent string so that IE users would see advanced content. This continues today so that the user agent string for Internet Explorer 8 is:

  • Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 8.0; Windows NT 6.1)

Note the word 'compatible', the information in brackets after the product name is a comment which is used to add more information on the product. Here it is the only place that the actual product name appears.

Back to the problem of identifying mobile browsers, here are the user agent strings for some common mobile browsers:

  • iPhone 4: Mozilla/5.0 (iPhone; U; CPU iPhone OS 4_3_2 like Mac OS X; en-us) AppleWebKit/533.17.9 (KHTML, like Gecko) Version/5.0.2 Mobile/8H7 Safari/6533.18.5
  • iPad: Mozilla/5.0 (iPad; U; CPU OS 3_2 like Mac OS X; en-us) AppleWebKit/531.21.10 (KHTML, like Gecko) Version/4.0.4 Mobile/7B334b Safari/531.21.10
  • Android Phone: (Samsung Galaxy): Mozilla/5.0 (Linux; U; Android 2.3.3; en-au; GT-I9000 Build/GINGERBREAD) AppleWebKit/533.1 (KHTML, like Gecko) Version/4.0 Mobile Safari/533.1
  • Android Tablet: (Acer A501): Mozilla/5.0 (Linux; U; Android 3.2.1; en-us; A501 Build/HTK55D) AppleWebKit/534.13 (KHTML, like Gecko) Version/4.0 Safari/534.13
  • Android Tablet, Firefox browser: Mozilla/5.0 (Android; Tablet; rv:10.0.4) Gecko/10.0.4 Firefox/10.0.4 Fennec/10.0.4

Note that the platform is clearly indicated in the user agent string but that there is no easy way to tell the difference between an Android phone and tablet when using the built in browser, unless you know the model names of each. Interestingly, the Firefox browser on the tablet indicates that it is a tablet.

Based on this, it is relatively simple to write Python code to look at the user agent string and determine what kind of browser is making a request. Here's a simple example that just accounts for the three common mobile platforms:

def browser_type(environ):
    """Determine the browser type based on the USER_AGENT
    setting in the environment. Return a tuple
    (mobile, type) where mobile is True if this is a mobile
    (phone, tablet) browser and False otherwise and type
    is a descriptive string: iphone, ipad, android, desktop
    """

    user_agent = environ['HTTP_USER_AGENT']

    patterns = {'ipad': 'iPad',
                'iphone': 'iPhone',
                'android': 'Android',
                }

    # scan for known mobile browsers
    for id in patterns.keys():
        if user_agent.find(patterns[id]) >= 0:
            return (True, id)

    # no mobile browser found
    return (False, 'desktop')

This is a very basic solution that doesn't account for many mobile browsers. Although iPhone/iPad and Android account for a large part of the mobile market share, there are other platforms and even other browsers on these platforms. In general, a more comprehensive solution is needed and this is provided by a number of third party packages such as detectmoblebrowsers and mobile.sniffer. The first of these just includes a big regular expression pattern that will match most mobile browser user agent strings; code is available in many languages to use this regular expression. The mobile.sniffer module is a little different as it makes use of a number of different browser detection modules. One of these, WURFL provides a device database that no only detects the appropriate browser type but returns a set of descriptive fields such as screen resolution and other browser capabilities. A similar service is provided by DeviceAtlas on a commercial basis. A major advantage of these alternatives is that the device database is updated regularly so that new platforms are sure to be included as they are introduced.

Redirecting to Mobile Site

If we are serving the mobile website via a different URL then there is a question of how a mobile user gets access to the appropriate version. A simple solution would be to include a link to the mobile site from every page so that a mobile user could select it and perhaps add it as a bookmark. However, this requires action on the part of the user and a better alternative is to redirect the user to the mobile version of the site when the first request from a mobile browser is received. Once this redirect has taken place, the user will be browsing the mobile URL space and will stay within the mobile site.

Using the browser detection code shown above, this example WSGI application will redirect the user to an alternate URL if the request comes from a mobile browser. If the request is not from a mobile browser, it is handled by another WSGI procedure desktop.

def mobile_redirect(environ, start_response):
    """WSGI application to detect what kind of browser
    is being used for a request"""

    user_agent = browser_type(environ)
    mobile_url = "http://m.example.org/"

    if user_agent[0]:
        headers = [('content-type', 'text/plain'), 
                    ('location', mobile_url)]
        start_response("303 See Other", headers)
        return ["See Other: ", mobile_url]
    else:
        return desktop(environ, start_response)

If we are serving the mobile website using the same URL space as the desktop site then the server software must determine the appropriate browser type for every request that is received. Within a WSGI application, this can be handled by using the browser_test procedure to identify the browser whenever a decision needs to be made. This might be, for example, when the page template is chosen for any given page.

If we are using browser sniffing to determine which version of the site to serve there is the possibility that we've got it wrong. In either of these approaches it should be possible for the user to select to use the desktop version of the site. This can be done by providing a link to a specific URL that will force the use of either the mobile or desktop versions of the site. To ensure that the user's choice is remembered, the application can return a cookie to the browser that will persist until the end of the browser session.

Viewing the Mobile Web

Since web applications will use the User Agent header to decide what kind of browser they are talking to, it follows that we can fool a site into thinking that we are a mobile browser by changing this header. In Apple's Safari browser there is an option in the default Develop menu that allows you to select between some User Agent settings - particularly between various Apple products like iPhone and iPad. In Chrome, there are a number of User Agent switching extensions, for example the Ultimate User Agent Switcher. Using the Safari option, I can view the mobile version of the SMH website which shows the page below:

Screenshot of Safari browser showing the mobile version of
smh.com.au

If you are developing web content for mobile devices this is an excellent first testing tool to see what a page will look like in a mobile browser. You can resize the window to approximate the screen size of a phone and test your site with all of the tools available on the desktop. However, it is not a substitute for thorough testing on the mobile platform itself. Remember that the browser will be different on the mobile device, so real testing on devices should be a core part of any development cycle.

Mobile Browser Capabilities

Early web browsers on mobile devices were very limited due to the limited processing power, screen resolution and network bandwidth of the devices. More recently, phones and tablets are becoming more powerful and have constant, high bandwidth network connectivity. This has led to the development of mobile browsers that are almost as capable as their desktop counterparts. The primary difference is the screen size and input modalities on mobile devices.

It's worthwhile being aware of the mobile browser landscape. There is a good graph shown at statcounter.com (as of May 2012) which shows that the current dominant browsers with around 20% market share each are the built in browsers on iPhone and Android and the independent Opera Mobile/Mini browser which has versions for iPhone, Android, Blackberry and Nokia S60 platforms. Lower down on the graph come the built in Nokia browser and the third party UC Browser, both at around 10%. The once dominant Blackberry browser sits at 5% with the remainder going to the iPod Touch and the Netfront browser. Interestingly, the bulk of these browsers are based on the WebKit rendering engine (which also forms the core of the Chrome and Safari desktop browsers).

When designing mobile-specific web applications, we should aim to be compatible with the majority of mobile devices while not hurting accessibility from the less widely used browsers. This means that we can design for the three main platforms (iPhone/iPod Touch, Android and Opera) while being aware of how our application behaves on UC Browser, Nokia and Blackberry.

HTML, CSS and Javascript

All of the major mobile browsers are based on WebKit which means they have very good support for the latest HTML, CSS and Javascript standards. Apple, on their developer website, suggest that you use W3C standard web technologies rather than plugins, since the iPad and other mobile platforms do not support the same plugins as desktop browsers. The main plugin you might want to use is Adobe Flash, which is not supported on the IOS platform and is starting to dissapear from the Android platform. This lack of universal support means that it is generally better to use alternative HTML/CSS/JS technologies rather than Flash where possible in mobile designs. In particular, the major browsers will support many of the new HTML5 features such as the audio and video tags and offline storage.

Touch Based Interface

An important feature of most mobile devices is the use of touch screens rather than a mouse to select links and scroll the page. This has an effect on how the user interacts with the page, but also changes the meaning of some CSS and Javascript events will change. Some browsers also introduce new events specific to the touch based interface.

The CSS selector :hover can be used on a desktop browser to change the style of an element if the mouse is hovering over it. You can use this to style buttons or menu items to give feedback in your interface. In a touch based interface there is no mouse so the hover event will not trigger this CSS rule. Hence your interface should not rely on information that is only revealed via the hover event.

Similarly, the Javascript events mousemove, mouseover and mouseout will generally not work on a mobile browser. This can be significant as they are often used to present help text in a pop-up 'ballon'. In a mobile web application, this will never trigger and the user will not be able to access the help text.

While these events are not available, the iPhone and Android browsers add new events that trigger on various touch based actions. These are touchstart, touchmove, touchend, and touchcancel. Support for these is not broad ( see this report) but might be useful when targeting specific user communities.

Geo-Location

Geolocation is a W3C standard interface to location data via Javascript. If the user agrees, Javascript running in the page has access to location data derived from whatever sources are available to the device. This can include GPS, cellular location, wi-fi based location or just an approximate location based on the machine's IP address. The page linked above gives examples of how to use this interface from Javascript and embeds some examples. Since I'm on my desktop machine writing this, it shows that I'm in Sydney, Australia but doesn't know where in Sydney I am.

Geolocation offers the possibility of new kinds of application on mobile devices, not just adaptations of the desktop web. Authors are exploiting this to provide location aware services such as local search and social applications.

Mobile Web Usability

A related issue is the use of text input on mobile devices. Touch devices usually have a soft keyboard that pops up whenever text input is required. However, typing is often slow on a small device and your interface shouldn't rely on long or complex text input if possible. Web applications designed for mobile devices should emphasise choosing from lists rather than typing where appropriate.

Mobile Website vs. Native Application

look at the things a web appliciation can't do on a phone native app that's just a wrapper around HTML+CSS+JS true native app that presents web derived content

Creative Commons
License\ Python Web Programming by Steve Cassidy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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