Making the Mental Shift from Web to Mobile Development

People have been developing for the web for over 20 years and, for the most part, we’ve got the hang of it. Sure, web development trends change, but the language and the nitty gritty technical side has stayed the same. But now there’s a new beast to be tamed: mobile.

When web developers start to take on mobile development, they don’t just need to learn a new language or two. It requires a mental shift, because developing for mobile is inherently different from developing for the web. Even cross-platform development, using technology like ours which relies on Javascript, familiar to many web developers, will—and should—be an entirely new enterprise.

Making the mental shift from web to mobile development is imperative to creating great apps. Designing apps as you would design for the web will result in a poor user experience. That’s a death sentence in today’s mobile marketplace, which is saturated with apps fighting for user downloads.

Here are a few things you can do to make the mental shift to mobile development:

Read the Platform Guidelines

When you build for the web, you start with a blank page. Essentially, you can do whatever you want. You’ll likely use common sense and tap into trends (for example, streamlined single-page sites are very popular right now), but there is no “right” web experience.

While there may be no “right” mobile experience either, there’s definitely less latitude. Mobile development doesn’t begin with the same blank slate web development does. Instead, it starts with a set of user guidelines that vary across platforms. If developers ignore them, they’ll end up with a messy app that likely doesn’t function as it should.

For example, the navigation structure is different for iOS and Android. With iOS your navigation can utilize tabs or navigation controllers. While you can use tabs on Android, the behavior is different. Android also has navigation based on ActionBar and a native slide-in drawer. It’s important to know which platform uses which type of navigation, but it’s even more important to recognize that there is a navigation structure provided to you by the native SDK. Unlike the web, you shouldn’t make up the rules as you go. That’s why it’s so important to understand the user guidelines for each of your target platforms.

Build with Multiple Platforms in Mind

Web developers need to consider how their sites will run on various browsers, but for the most part, the experience remains the same. That means one uniform design across browsers is not only possible, but ideal. This isn’t the case with mobile apps. Each mobile platform is unique (that’s why user guidelines exist), and apps should be designed accordingly.

Your app should offer the same capabilities for any device, but these features need not (and should not) look the same on every platform. Take a look at Evernote. Its apps look completely different depending on what platform you’re using. The functionality is largely the same, regardless of the device, but Evernote taps into the unique features each platform offers and designs accordingly. The app looks different across platforms, but is visually engaging and functions well across them because it was designed with the specific platforms in mind.

Web to Mobile Development

Pick a Single Purpose

Websites can do a lot. They run on a larger screen and can support a hefty navigation menu. That means a website can offer a wide range of functionality without overwhelming users. For example, a bank’s website may offer users everything from from online banking and money transfers to budgeting, tax documentation and account enrollment assistance.

Mobile apps, on the other hand, should serve a single purpose or a few related purposes at most. If your app tries to do everything your website does, you’re likely to frustrate users, slow down your app and increase your chances of crashing.

For example, Starbucks’ website has several drop-down navigation options, each of which has dozens of clickable links within it. Website visitors can learn about each drink, shop an online store, get information on company history and policy and much, much more. But the company’s mobile app focuses in on functionality that people want access to on-the-go, such as mobile payments and store locating services.

Understand Your Users’ Context

A major difference between web pages and mobile apps is what each can tell you about your user. A web page uses cookies and other mechanisms to remember people and track where they go on the web. Mobile apps, on the other hand, can tell you much more than that. They’re capable of recognizing where a user is, what or who a user is near, whether that user is moving or standing still, what direction they’re pointed in and so on.

Mobile apps provide developers with a great deal of context about users that the web isn’t able to offer. Because apps have this capability, it’s important that developers design accordingly, in a way that isn’t possible with web page development. Tapping into this knowledge can mean the difference between an app that simply functions and an app that goes above and beyond, creating the ultimate, predictive user experience. So when you make the move from web to mobile, it’s important to remember that there’s a new set of data and capabilities that should be taken advantage of.

When mobile developers adopt a truly mobile mindset, the result is well-designed apps that better align to user needs. Recognizing and making the mental shift required for mobile development can make all the difference in a world where user experience reigns supreme.