Mobile for a Global Audience

There’s a bit of a cognitive dissonance between going to conferences like An Event Apart where I learn about all the amazing things the mobile web is now capable of — and then going to a conference like last week’s Wikimania where I learned that the most common mobile phone operating system in the world is Nokia Series 40 (S40), which doesn’t have the capability to do most of those amazing things.

A new report released yesterday by the World Bank tells us that about 75% of the world’s inhabitants now have access to a mobile phone. And amazingly, more than 80% of current mobile subscriptions are in developing countries.

But most of the users in developing countries are accessing the web very differently than most of you reading this. If you’re designing a website that could potentially have a global reach, it’s necessary to take into account the types of devices these users have, the speed of their networks, and how the cost of data influences the way they access the mobile web.

Devices

Most of us use and develop for iOS or Android smartphones, but worldwide about 70% of handset shipments are feature phones. In many countries, feature phones are much more common that smartphones, so if you’re designing for a global audience, it’s important to keep in mind that other phones can be a radically different user experience.

For example, although some of the more recent models of Nokia S40 phones have advanced (i.e., smartphone) features such as touch screens, maps (using network-based positioning instead of GPS), and productivity apps such as Angry Birds, most S40 phones have more basic features and capabilities.

Additionally, displays on S40 phones are typically 128 x 128 pixels, 128 x 160, 240 x 320, or something in between. In comparison, an iPhone display is 320 x 480 pixels. And if a phone doesn’t have a touch screen, users will be interacting with your site differently.

Network Speed

Speed is another issue. In a 2011 study of mobile providers worldwide, the average connection speed ranged from around 5 Mbps at the high end, to 209 Kbps at the low end. That low number is only 4% of the high number. That’s a big difference in speed. Luckily most networks aren’t that slow. At the end of 2011, the worldwide average connection speed was 2.3 Mbps, compared to 5.8 Mbps in the United States.

Whether or not you have global users, reducing your page weight (which is the combined file size of everything downloaded to display a page) to decrease load time just makes sense. Small changes in load times can have a big effect on ecommerce sites. If you’re using a slow network, huge pages may fail to load entirely. And users who have to wait too long may just give up and go somewhere else.

Cost of Data

In many developing countries, a key barrier to accessing the mobile web is the cost. Prices for mobile data can be surprisingly similar to what is available in the United States, but if you live in a country with a much lower average income, the cost can be prohibitive.

For example, in Kenya, where 99% of internet users access the internet via mobile, you can buy a 1.5 GB data bundle for 1000 ksh (about $12), which is slightly cheaper per GB than the $30 you would pay for 3 GB on an AT&T iPhone monthly plan in the United States, and significantly cheaper than the $25 you would pay for a contract-free 1.5 GB monthly data pass on T-Mobile.

However, the gross domestic product (GDP) in Kenya is only $142 per month, compared to a GDP of $4008 per month in the United States. (GDP is not the same as income, but income figures are not available for most developing countries, and this at least provides a general comparison).

When data is so expensive compared to income, users are very careful with their data usage. This is another reason that reducing your page weight is a significant help to users in developing countries.

Websites that want to increase their global reach are finding innovative ways to get past this barrier. Wikipedia Zero is an initiative from the Wikimedia Foundation which is working to provide free access to Wikipedia in developing countries, with a goal of increasing people served by Wikipedia to 1 billion by 2015. Wikipedia is partnering with mobile phone operators to provide mobile users with access to Wikipedia without it counting against their data plan. Wikipedia can also be accessed by SMS if data isn’t available.

Future of Global Mobile

By 2015, 40% of the world’s population will have access to the internet, and an increasing percentage will access the internet solely or primarily from mobile devices.

In developing countries, users are already more likely to access the internet from a mobile phone than from a PC, and in many countries, people are far more likely to have access to a mobile phone than a land-line phone. Mobile phones aren’t replacing or in addition to land lines, they are often the first phones for people who have never had phones of their own.

This is an incredibly opportunity to get information to communities that previously had little access to information. Even the voice and SMS features can have a big impact, such as providing rural farmers with the daily prices of agricultural commodities, which improves their bargaining position and gives them more options for selling their goods.

If you’re trying to reach a global audience, you need to design and develop from a mobile-first perspective, taking into account the wide range of devices people are using, in order to allow as many people as possible to access your content.

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