Tablets Are Great, Unless You Are A Web Designer

Written by Todd L. Michaud
October 3rd, 2012

Todd Michaud runs Power Thinking Media, which helps retailers and restaurants tackle the convergence of social, mobile and retail technologies. He spent nine years delivering technology platforms to more than 10,000 retail locations as VP of IT for Focus and Director of Retail Technology for Dunkin’ Brands.

Trying to deliver a responsive Web design, an interface that is customized to your customer’s Web surfing environment, is becoming nearly impossible thanks to the latest and greatest technology. Four trends are ripping apart the principles of solid Web design that existed even a few years ago: small tablets, better looking screens, mobile phones and netbooks (remember those?). The result is retailers spending a lot of money to make great looking Web sites and then finding out that a large portion of their users have a “less than optimal” experience.

When I saw last week’s StorefrontBacktalk story by Frank Hayes about how top retailers did not seem to know that Android tablets existed, I was surprised, because those results were quite different than my own research done just a few months earlier. My research focused solely on the iPad. I found that most retailers serve up their full Web sites to an iPad 2, which left me wanting more. I thought it was ridiculous that my first experience was having to pinch out to be able to read the tiny font. But in Frank’s research, he had found that the top retailers serve up their mobile sites to a Nexus 7 Android tablet, which means they aren’t taking advantage of the iPad’s larger screen and are serving up cut-down mobile content.

So what is causing us to have such different experiences, beyond Android versus iPad? It appears that the 7-inch form factor is the culprit. Last year, some 81 percent of tablets sold were iPads with a 10-inch-class display. Seven-inch tablets didn’t exist until the Kindle Fire was released late in 2011. It’s not surprising to me that retailers haven’t adapted their sites for a platform that didn’t exist even a year ago.

But it’s important to know that most Web design done today is based on pixel width. A Web developer or designer is typically creating one or more views of the content based on the number of pixels wide the content will be. Most Web sites you see today are typically built for around 1,000 pixels wide. This was done because, until recently, the “most common” screen resolution width was 1,024 pixels. So designers, looking to optimize their content for the largest group of customers, built for the average.

Although mobile phones presented a challenge when the iPhone was first released (very few retailers had modified their content to support the BlackBerry crowd previously), developers eventually responded by creating a second set of content designed for these smaller screens. They also adjusted what content was presented on these screens, because it quickly became apparent that users accessing the Web site “on the go” from their phones wanted/needed different information than those surfing from their desks. So smart retailers developed mobile apps that focus on a store finder, hours of operations, contact information and a product catalog designed to be mobile friendly.

Tablets may be the platform du jour, but we can’t forget about the netbooks that were all the rage just a few short years ago. Before tablets took over, it seemed that everyone and their grandmother was buying the small, inexpensive devices that tended to carry a smaller screen resolution than their laptop counterparts. So many of these units were sold that the “average screen width” went from 1,024 pixels to 768 pixels earlier this year. So as of earlier this year, the “average surfer” is going to have to scroll left and right to see your entire site. Not good.


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