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GUEST OPINION Top tips for e-commerce developers to boost retail site performance on mobile

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Brian Doll, the lead performance engineer for New Relic, a company specializing in web application performance looks at what you need to take your e-commerce strategy mobile

In today’s digital age, companies have a mobile strategy whether they know it or not. Companies that embrace mobile commerce early will separate themselves from their competition and seize their unfair share of this multi-billion dollar market. While there has been much debate about the pros and cons of creating native mobile apps, the real issue is that whether or not companies chooses to embrace mobile in the first place. Because guess what? Company websites will be accessed by mobile phones anyways.

While mobile commerce technology has been available for 10 years, up until now many companies (and retail especially) have primarily used mobile as a complement to the online and paper catalogues which remain the industry standard to this day. Most often, retailers used mobile to send notices about sales and other offers to attract more customers to their physical stores.

However, for certain industries like retail, it can be even more difficult to modify websites to function properly in a mobile environment. Retail sites are stuffed with image-laden pages showing different sizes and views, with descriptive copy and a variety of different sections, tabs, and menus that must be squeezed somehow into a four to five-inch screen area.

But with mobile commerce expected to reach $31 billion by 2016, according to Forrester Research, companies are starting to take notice of the wealth of sales opportunities mobile offers them. Here are some tips that can help any retail company improve the mobile experience of its e-commerce Web site.

Site Layout/ UI

So you have decided to optimize your site for mobile, what now? A well designed mobile website should look different, but not necessarily require a separate platform or backend.

1. Size matters. First you need to consider screen size. The typical screen size of most mobile phones is usually less than 4 inches, so when it comes to building your retail app, you must account for the limited screen area by removing the clutter. While the screen size of a mobile device is drastically smaller than a desktop, the image resolution is still very high, so it is important to remember that you won’t sell products that your shoppers cannot see on their device. Consider using mobile web toolkits to provide some common navigation elements so you can focus on what makes your site unique.

2. Simple beats complex. Next, you need to essentially ‘trim the fat’ by keeping the pages simple—focus your site’s features on the most necessary images/icons and functions, which will give users the best overall experience. For example, if you’re a clothing retailer, you’ll want to solely focus the user experience on single items without excessive images or descriptions. The most common culprits for data laden slow pages is Flash. A mobile website should be free of flash and rely on icons and images instead. Keep in mind that iPhone and iPad users won’t even see that flash anyway.

3. Design still matters. Remember, with the mobile capabilities and high volume of mobile access, your mobile site can no longer just be a conduit for your brick and mortar stores or catalogues—your mobile site needs to act as an extension of your company’s brand. When you are looking for things to trim down, preserve your brand or product logo in lieu of adding additional images or tabs. Bad layouts will disassociate your company’s image from the mobile extension of your website and discourage users from visiting it when they are in need a quick shopping experience.

Scaling/ Accommodating for user volume

4. Streamline the process. Dense home pages are the first place where too much data can be dragging down your speed and discourage users from continuing onto other pages. Lightweight pages will speed up the load time and boost performance. Next, remember to keep the search breadcrumb trail short. When customers are accessing the mobile site they are looking to quickly browse so it is not necessary to preserve the entire search history. Ideally, the site should only display the last part of the string from the search.

5. Seal the deal. Once the decision to make a purchase has been made, developers should always optimize their checkout process to be as short as possible. Every nonessential step in your mobile checkout process adds friction while likely resulting in lost sales. Remember, the method of presentation can make or break a sale and sites that are slow to load — even by just a second or two — can often lead to users abandoning the transaction altogether. Mobile users are always in a hurry. Make the sale or be sorry!

6. Don’t forget about the browsers! While web-based sites are built to deliver content for all kinds of browsers at once, in the mobile environment the opposite is true. To account for this discrepancy, it is important to build your mobile site to send content in a way specifically tailored to each individual mobile browser, this will help to avoid weighing down the browser with page data it can’t use. You may even want to consider using a mobile-only stylesheet to keep these pages lightweight — one for each contingency, depending on browser type, version, device, and device OS, etc.

Designing mobile websites is hard, and designing mobile e-commerce websites is twice as hard. Figuring out how to help customers find the right product and how to convert that process into a sale can a be a daunting endeavor for retail companies—but with the way mobile commerce is expanding, not having a mobile optimized site will become an even bigger and costlier headache.

Rather than just a functionality issue, poor mobile site performance can be a business problem. Don’t upset potential customers by not optimizing your site for mobile. The need for quick transactions and the convenience that mobile commerce provides will mean that a distracted consumer will simply choose another brand if the mobile site does not meet their needs.

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