Tuesday, May 22, 2012

What’s Next for Mobile Now That Adaptive Web Design Has Failed?

This post was also published in VentureBeat.

This article was written for business readers. Due to an outcry from the responsive design community, I added the word "web" to the term "adaptive design" to avoid confusion with progressive enhancement, and updated the text to read that Facebook uses "a precursor to" responsive design, even though very techie trades like RWW say that Facebook uses responsive design. Obviously, the outcry has more to do with the content than the terminology, but it's always good to be pedantic. Read on!

Analysts commenting on Facebook’s IPO have highlighted a major issue in mobile computing: that it’s incredibly difficult to monetize on mobile devices. Like many other engineering-led cultures, Facebook has embraced adaptive web design, a precursor to also known as responsive design, where essentially the same code can render itself down from a desktop browser to a tablet to a diminutive mobile screen.

Adaptive web design is an elegant solution to the thorny technical problem of having to deliver a content experience on multiple devices. And engineers love more than anything to apply the same hammer to multiple nails.

Unfortunately, users do not agree. Desktop web browsers, tablets, and mobile devices are fundamentally different and are used in very different ways. Across our properties at CBS Interactive, we have experimented with a variety of adaptive and direct designs and are learning the hard way that a one-size-fits-all solution delivers a subpar user experience.

Turn those mobile pages

The app has defined the mobile form factor. Users expect to see menus with only a few relevant options that do not require scrolling, titlebars with back buttons, and do not mind paging through content as long as it loads fast. In contrast, when a full size web page is adapted down to a mobile form factor, it forces a lot of vertical scrolling – even if some components are removed and others are made smaller.

Narrowing a mobile experience down to the essentials of what a user wants while mobile is critical. Tight menus and quick page loads compel users to turn more pages, which is essential in the small mobile form factor that has limited ads. Some ad units on mobile are worth more on mobile than desktop — for example, someone reading a product review on a mobile device in a store is likely contemplating buying that product.

Content publishers can learn a lot from airlines and banks, which are usually technology lagards. The mobile sites of United Airlines and Wells Fargo are tight, focused, and substantially different from their websites.

Tablets are for swiping

The tablet is essentially a magazine form factor, and users have been trained by numerous popular apps ranging from iBook to the New York Times to Flipboard that they should swipe right to left to page through content an a tablet. Users are perfectly happy to swipe through an article that is split into several pages, since this is what they did with magazines.

Rather than adapting a web page down to the tablet form factor and requiring users to scroll vertically, publishers should embrace swiping. Users are not perturbed at all to see a full page interstitial ad stuck into the mix while paging through content, making the tablet extremely monetizable.

Swiping is very difficult to code for mobile web. Fortunately, there are turnkey solutions such as Pressly and OnSwipe that make it easy for simple sites to create swipeable tablet editions. Extensions to jQuery Mobile and Sencha Touch make it easy for programmers to add swiping features to their mobile HTML.

Let websites be websites

Website design is proven, monetizaton techniques work well, and users expect sites to function the way they currently function. There is no pressing need to substantially change how they work.

The trend of “iPadification” of websites is more about adding simplicity and whitespace rather than a complete restructuring of how a website should work. Some types of services, such as Twitter, provide a tablet-like experience on their website. Twitter’s website offers a clean design with white, rounded content areas and no dynamic menus. Users are comfortable scrolling vertically on tablets to see streams, so the same design works well for desktop web and tablet.

It is painful for engineers to have to support three different use cases for three different form factors. However, particularly for content sites, the effort bears worthwhile fruit in terms of mobile monetization.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Big Data May be Hot, but Little Data is What Matters

This post was also published on CNET.

Big Data is in vogue, with a glut of startups and numerous large installations appearing in corporations. At CBS Interactive, we process almost one billion events a day that flow from our Web and application servers over message queues to a cluster of 80 twelve core Hadoop nodes that then feed a Teradata data warehouse.

Processing and analyzing such a large volume of data helps us ask important questions: Which pages on which properties are most profitable? Who goes where across our various sites? What types of content generates the greatest number of advertising conversions?

But here's the thing: Most of our conversations with product and business managers are spent discussing what I like to call "little data."

Little data constitutes the nuts and bolts metrics of running a business. For a Web property, that means getting a handle on issues such as the bounce rate, SEO session starts, social session starts, funnels of how users flow through a property, and page views per session. Too many people lose sight of these simple but critical metrics.

Monitoring and actively managing a Web property to these "little" metrics creates significant lift in page views and conversions, and that helps revenue. Even something as simple as actively managing the hoops you make people jump through to register for your site and the sorts of emails you send when they do builds and grows a loyal following.

One of the most critical metrics we are tracking comes from the gaming world: the ratio of daily active users to monthly active users (DAU to MAU). When the ratio is low, say around 0.03, it means that your unique users are coming only once a month, and you're essentially running a fly-by tourist site. When the ratio is high, such as Facebook's estimated 0.60, it means that a majority of your users are using your site on a daily basis and that your property is a key part of their online lives. (I can't share the DAU to MAU for our sites, as they're confidential.)

Taking control of little data

There are a variety of inexpensive little data tools that are easy to implement. SimplyMeasured is excellent at managing social traction -- i.e., how much impact your site is making on various social networks. KISSMetrics is world class at managing "conversion funnels," the path a user follows through a site before "converting" to a sale. Google Analytics, which is free, does a great job of managing metrics such as bounce rate and SEO session starts, measures of how "sticky" your site is and how well you're doing at attracting new external visitors. Implementing such easy-to-use tools encourages product and business managers to actively manage their sites with "little data" metrics in mind.

Managing a site by the numbers shouldn't be taken to the extreme, however. Sites need to look good and say something relevant to readers; they shouldn't just be optimized within an inch of their lives to drive revenue. We don't, for instance, want to make CBSNews.com look like GoDaddy, which is -- understandably enough -- completely optimized to drive revenue.

Growing up to big data

Once the use of little data becomes pervasive in an organization, big data can then begin to help decision making, since a culture of data-driven decisions is ingrained. Moving beyond just simple web metrics, big data can provide an integrated view of a business by integrating financial metrics, answering questions you hadn't even thought of when initially setting up a site, and deciphering trends across disparate sets of data.

Big data is hard to do, and can be very expensive and time consuming. Integrating revenue and cost data in order to manage end-to-end business models is a complicated and time consuming task. Some organizations decide to outsource to companies like Omniture and Webtrends (where I used to be a GM), which can help figure out how to tag and manage the process, in addition to storing the vast amounts of data required for meaningful analysis.

If your organization has enough volume and the technical competence to do your own implementation, keep in mind that it's easy to get lost in the process of building out big data infrastructure and lose sight of the fact that, in the end, big data needs to be usable. This might sound straightforward, but in practice it can be anything but. It requires highly skilled data scientists and strategists that understand business problems and can distill the data into simple, actionable metrics.

In effect, the magic of big data is turning it into little data.