Mobile Commerce Has Come of Age. Are You Ready?

Mobile is the fastest-growing segment of the online commerce world. Consider this past holiday season: According to PayPal, global mobile payment volume over the Thanksgiving period more than doubled from last year. For both Thanksgiving Day and Black Friday, Compuware measured more than a 250% increase in the number of iPad page views when compared to 2011. The “couch commerce” trend was surely in effect, as shoppers perused retail sites from the comfort of their own (or their relatives’) couches after Thanksgiving dinner.

To capitalize on the mobile commerce opportunity, businesses and marketers must deliver exceptionally fast and reliable experiences on mobile devices, matching the excellence of a desktop PC. Below are five valuable tips for maximizing site performance on smartphones and tablets.

1. Focus first on site design optimization. Sometimes, losing a little weight is all it takes to improve performance. In mobile, the very same feature-richness that makes traditional websites appealing may be a hindrance. It may lead to sites that are too large, cumbersome, or slow for customers to use for searching, browsing, or making purchases. Some organizations jump to the immediate conclusion that making a site faster on a mobile device means adopting some of the same strategies used for traditional websites, like site acceleration via content delivery networks (CDNs). But sites viewed on a mobile device can only be as fast as the slowest mobile connection. The best CDN in the world will not help if a site is not optimally designed to perform well on the smallest screens and the slowest connections. Measuring performance from the true end-user perspective is key to identifying opportunities to lose a few pounds in site design, in order to gain speed.

2. Consider adopting responsive design. Among mobile devices, there are differences and nuances in terms of the volume and type of site content that various platforms can accommodate well. For example, the iPad screen is more adept at displaying rich visual content than an iPhone. Also, sites on an iPad must be optimized for touch, displaying big buttons and links that are spaced far enough apart to enable easy browsing. Some organizations have dedicated mobile home pages specifically designed to download quickly on various types of mobile devices. However, developing and maintaining these pages can cost extra time and money.

Conversely, a new process called responsive design ensures that entire sites—not just home pages—can be designed and built once, then used anywhere and on any device. Essentially, the site can detect the nature of inbound traffic (i.e. smartphone, tablet, or desktop PC) and deliver a version of various pages according to specific device capabilities and limitations. The beauty of this approach is that there’s only one code base to create and manage.

3. Measure performance from the true end-user perspective, 24×7, 365 days a year.  It’s well-known that third-party services added to a website—e.g., ad servers, reviews, product demos—can degrade performance for traditional web pages and applications. In the spirit of eliminating unnecessary “page weight,” there may not be as many third-party services used on sites where mobile users are expected to be in the majority. But the speed and bandwidth limitations of most mobile carrier connections mean that when the performance of a third-party service does goes awry on a mobile site, the impact can be even more detrimental than with traditional sites. Measuring application performance from the data center alone does not provide a view into problems caused by third-party services. These services make it critical to measure performance from the only perspective that counts—that of end-users across a wide range of devices—and combine this information with deep-dive diagnostics. This is critical to getting to the root of problems quickly.

In addition to monitoring only from the data center, traditional application monitoring solutions often rely on sampling at various intervals to gauge performance. The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t capture performance problems outside the testing interval, which businesses must get ahead of to minimize impact on revenue. This is especially true in the mobile commerce world, since end-users are accessing sites at any time, from anywhere. Businesses must make sure that their sites are available and fast for mobile users—always.

4. Don’t fight the power of mobile – embrace it. Showrooming is the practice of examining merchandise in a traditional brick-and-mortar retail store without purchasing it, then shopping online to find a lower price for the same item. Brick-and-mortar retailers are working hard to combat showrooming, and many have considered denying customers free wi-fi as a means of blunting the mobile web’s conducive effect. 

But this will only annoy and alienate customers. If a time-pressed customer is in a particular retailer’s store and doesn’t want to take the time to download the retailer’s app, the first place they’ll go for coupons and deals is the retailer’s mobile site. Retailers must ensure high-performing mobile sites to make shopping easier for customers. In addition, retailers can use customers’ email addresses secured during the wi-fi sign-in process to further distribute location-specific incentives. The lesson is simple: When it comes to trying to prevent showrooming via mobile devices, businesses can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

After years of hearing of the arrival of mobile commerce, the promise has been fulfilled this year, driven largely by tablet adoption. Businesses realize that the revenue-generating potential of their customer-facing applications hinges on the ability to deliver convenient experiences and ensure strong performance across a widening range of mobile browsers and devices. In 2013 marketers must make ensuring high-quality mobile interactions with sites and applications a foremost priority.

Stephen Pierzchala is web performance evangelist with the Compuware APM Center of Excellence.

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