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Test Driving Mobile

Today’s higher education web strategy hinges on device agnosticism—and requires content synergy between desktop, tablet, and mobile views.
University Business, December 2012

A college reunion this spring at the  State University of New York at Oswego presented the web-development team an opportunity to build an iPhone app using an open-source software called Kurogo, developed by Modo Labs. The app was a hit, with 30 percent of the 2,000 or so reunion attendees downloading it to share photos and stay on top of events over the course of three days.

Updated campus maps on the app also helped alumni who had not been back to the campus—located on the shores of Lake Ontario and several hours from major metropolitan areas—after new buildings had been erected.

“It was an ideal launch pad to show everyone the power that this mobile web app can have,” says Tim Nekritz, director of web communication at the university.
Two-thirds of the mobile phones in the United States are smartphones and that number is expected to increase over the next few years, according to a March Nielsen report. And more than half of prospective students polled by the higher education consulting firm Noel-Levitz for its 2012 Mobile Expectations Report said they visited a potential school’s mobile website if they used a mobile device at least once a week.

Noel-Levitz reported almost half of students said their experience on a mobile site increased their interest in the school and that they would likely return. Students who use their mobile devices to visit school websites, the research found, are more apt to watch videos, request a campus visit, or get financial aid information. The consultancy also suggests higher ed institutions create easy access to social media outlets and update the mobile version as regularly as the institution’s regular website.

Yet 39 percent of colleges and universities didn’t have a mobile website as of winter 2012, when they were surveyed for the 2012 State of the Mobile Web report by UB’s Internet Technology columnist Karine Joly, who publishes the blog College Web Editor.

“Mobile is not just something on the fringes of people’s experience at a university,” says Eric Kim, vice president of user experience at Modo Labs. “It is core to how people interact with an institution.”

In the case of mobile apps versus mobile friendly websites, it’s not a case of either/or. Web-development professionals and officials at the companies that serve them say schools should evolve their mobile web strategies based on their analytics. Sometimes, an app is ideal. In other situations, mobile-optimized websites make sense.

Designing for “Mobile First”

With mobile traffic rapidly climbing at institutions, an ideal web strategy involves designing for mobile first and building up from there. The principle of “mobile first,” detailed in Luke Wroblewski’s book of the same name (2011), puts the onus on sharp content management. Because device screens are much smaller than desktop screens, only the most essential information needs to be provided.

“It’s not about their device. It’s about the audience. We use content strategy in all our discussions. Your real estate is so small you’re going to ask the question, ‘What is the most important thing for this page?’” says Brett Pollak, director of the web office at the University of California, San Diego.

Another variable to consider is screen size. Pollak says with hundreds of device resolutions accessing sites, there is no predictable “fold,” or the point where the page breaks as it does with desktops. No one can be sure how much content will be seen by the visitor when he or she first lands on the page. If a school opts to display all of its content on its website or conversely, slashes chunks of it to fit it “above the fold,” it may be doing mobile users a disservice.

For example, the UC San Diego home page was viewed in 22 different screen sizes in 2009. That number shot up to 523 in 2012. UC San Diego was one of the first campuses in the UC system to implement responsive design, which earned it a 2012 Golden Sautter Award from the University of California Office of the President.

Although apps built for iPhones and Android devices are popular, they are less capable than mobile sites of serving prospective students and other online visitors—because apps must be downloaded to view content.

A mobile audience also has different needs because visitors may be using a site as prospective students or as current students looking up the campus shuttle schedule. Curating content for a mobile audience requires a constant analysis of web traffic statistics.

As Erik Runyon, manager of interactive development at the University of Notre Dame (Ind.), says, “Taking a site from a desktop and smashing it down to a mobile device is only going to hurt the experience.”

The Case for Mobile Sites

All institutions’ websites aim to serve, but mobile-optimized sites take it further because of the pint-sized real estate. Much like driving past a billboard on a highway, a mobile site must provide just enough information to move the visitor to take an action.

Although native apps—those built for iPhones and Android devices—are popular, they are less capable of serving prospective students and other online visitors because apps must be downloaded to view content.

“If you were going to do anything, do a mobile website, from what we learned,” Nekritz of SUNY Oswego says.

At that college, mobile traffic has been exploding, doubling every 220 days. In August, 15 percent of visits to the college’s websites were from mobile devices. That is an almost four-fold increase from the previous August.

“Very shortly, sometime next year, more than half of our visitors will be accessing our sites from a mobile device,” Nekritz explains, adding that his institution has invested in building mobile websites by contracting with Modo Labs. The university’s new mobile presence was unveiled this fall.

mobile use infographicDave Olsen, a professional technologist at West Virginia University, agrees that mobile-optimized sites are more important than apps.

“I think folks get too caught up in the technology that delivers the content, whether it’s an app or the shiny part that kicks it all out,” says Olsen, who has been widely published and spoken at industry conferences on mobile web development in higher education. He developed Mobile Web OSP, which was built on MIT Mobile Web, an open-source software. Mobile Web OSP has since developed 14 institutions’ mobile-optimized sites.

Lance Merker, CEO at OmniUpdate, which provides a content-management system deployed by more than 500 colleges and universities, says apps are still valuable on their own and integrated into a mobile web strategy.

Apps are function-specific tools that can help faculty, staff, and students access class schedules, pay bills, find out when the next campus bus will arrive, or look up what’s for dinner at a dining hall. Because class schedules and bill payment applications generally require more complex programming, it is best for schools to contract with vendors that have specifically developed solutions for higher education, says HighEdWeb Professionals Association president Daniel Frommelt.
At SUNY Oswego, every food service on campus is represented by a module on the mobile site. “The joy of analytics is suddenly finding out that your dining menu is one of the most popular things,” Nekritz says. “If people are using it, we need to have a solution for it.”

Adaptive versus Responsive

When it comes to designing mobile sites, the words “responsive” and “adaptive” have been used interchangeably in the web-development community. Yet, they do not mean the same thing.

Responsive is an overarching term that describes creating websites that fluidly change the proportions of the elements (logos, images, tables) on a page depending on the screen size.

Adaptive refers to designing elements in specific sizes that are called upon to appear on a page depending on the device screen the website’s server detects.
Responsive sites are built in “percentages” that shrink and expand elements as screen size is detected. Adaptive sites provide a set of pre-sized elements built for different screen sizes.

Professionals in the field say fierce debates over the value of responsive design versus adaptive design may be unwarranted. Although schools often speak of implementing responsive design, many of them are really instituting adaptive design, according to Olsen. “It’s just the buzzword everyone knows,” he says, adding that WVU’s homepage uses adaptive design. “I think it’s just easier to go and hook on to one term than have two that are really, really close.” Olsen says the reason adaptive design is more widely called upon is because websites are designed in Photoshop, where element sizes are determined in pixels.
Nekritz says, “A lot of people look at responsive design as a tool. Responsive design is not a tool. It’s a goal. You want to make sure you have designed for as many people as possible.”

There need not be such a fierce pull between the two, explains Kim of Modo Labs. “We feel like there’s a continuum for your particular user base, your particular functionality.” So the question then becomes, “Where do you turn the dial between those extremes?”

Keeping up with trends has in itself kept the Campus Web Office at UC San Diego busy. It analyzes mobile web traffic, taking note of unseen devices accessing the school’s websites. “Responsive design is servicing this new era of computing because it’s device agnostic,” says Pollak. “We’re just looking at the resolution and we serve up a format. A lot of it has been a grassroots story for testing.”

‘A lot of people look at responsive design as a tool. Responsive design is not a tool. It’s a goal. You want to make sure you designed for as many people as possible.’ —Tim Nekritz, SUNY Oswego

Nathan Gerber, director of web development services at Utah Valley University, says that although the university has only recently begun implementing a mobile strategy, it has already gone through several iterations. “We went from thinking we need a native mobile app to a dedicated mobile site to an adaptive responsive design.”

There isn’t one single mobile strategy all schools should follow, notes Kim. “There’s going to be an active push and pull where there’s going to have to be a case for existing mobile sites or apps to be designed to be usable and accessible on desktops. It forces organizations to think about content in a way they haven’t before when they design for mobile.”

Outsourcing versus In-house Development

Before delving into creating a solid mobile strategy, which should be integrated into a cohesive web strategy, schools should consider how to manage content, says Nilanjan Dey Roy, senior web developer at OmniUpdate, which licenses its CMS, OU Campus, to hundreds of campuses.

Once a cohesive content strategy is created, the right content can be funnelled to respective devices. That’s where good design comes into play.
UVU has been using OU Campus since 2008, after a decade of bouncing between four different CMS providers.

Gerber says users, such as professors who are often juggling tasks unrelated to marketing and web design, have said OU Campus is easy to use. “It required minimal training, and allowed them to make their content changes quickly and get on with their responsibilities.”

Schools that use a CMS provide some form of training to content creators, so they understand how to write with a mobile audience in mind. “It doesn’t always seem to be on the front of their minds,” says Rick Buck, web support specialist at SUNY Oswego. “It’s like a Word doc that gets emailed to a secretary with an instruction like, ‘Put this on the web.’”

Gerber also likes that OU Campus can be manipulated in-house to function as the school would like. When Gerber and his staff hit a roadblock in their internal development, they can call OU Campus for help.

He says he would advise schools to hire an outside company to help manage their web content, especially now that mobile content is so important. “I think those resources could be better spent on the website, instead of creating the tools for the websites.”

SUNY Oswego also opted to go with a vendor, Modo Labs, because of the complexity of mobile web programming. An active community of developers helps Oswego’s web-development team when they are stumped. In the future, the school is looking into having students in its computer science department develop modules that appear on the mobile website using Modo Labs’ Kurogo.

UCSD opted to move its mobile web development in-house in 2009 after being dissatisfied with the speed of progress of a vendor that was developing an iPhone app. Now, it uses a CMS developed by Hannon Hill and in-house developers responsively design old sites.

Merker of OmniUpdate says most schools are farming out mobile web development because it requires a new skill set. “Keeping up with that is a challenge. There are experts out there that do this all day long that can offload all the iterative trying and failing.”

Fortunately, many resources—such as Mobile Web OSP—have been freely shared, which helps to avoid the reinvention of the wheel. “The thing is, in higher education, when someone develops a mouse trap, they are willing to share it,” Nekritz of Oswego says. “That is what I like about this field.”