5 Insights for Better Mobile-First Web Solutions

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I’ve been producing and managing successful M4Dev services for 5 years now in my role as product & project manager at Every1Mobile, and along the way I’ve picked up some key insights that may seem obvious to a UX designer or digital marketer, but maybe not to development practitioners grappling with a new medium.
My experience spans the African continent with a focus on users aged 15-30, but I suspect these pointers are universal. I’d be intrigued to hear from M4Dev implementers in other continents as well as those who’ve worked with older audiences.

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1. Yes, you can make a website
But not any old website. Many of the discussions I’ve had with partners and clients have focused on explaining what is possible – and convincing them that websites are. Although more and more people in the development sector are aware of ICT as a tool to engage with their audience, few really understand what’s possible and believe their options are limited to USSD and IVR.
With the major caveat that this is only the case when your users have access to at least 2G internet, and are literate, you can create a website optimised for whatever device your users spend the most time on, which is predominantly mobile.
With a streamlined design that takes into account small screen resolutions, data costs and connectivity, you can create a website that works well on internet enabled feature phones, smart phones, tablets and desktop computers.
This allows for a level of engagement with your users that SMS & IVR simply can’t provide: not only can you serve static content (such as articles or advice columns), but you can also run quizzes with leaderboards, answer live Q&As, host discussion threads and get users to post photos. You can even (whisper it) enable users to stream or download audio & video.
2. Build mobile first, not desktop down
Sorry, but it’s not enough to use a responsive template (an off the shelf design which snaps to smartphone view). Often, the smartphone view is not even up to scratch, and will almost definitely not perform well on a more basic phone. Work with your designer to design a site that will look awesome on the tiniest of screens, and build up from there.
And seriously, if you need to compromise on the desktop view? Do it – an infinitesimal proportion of your userbase will notice.
The major sticking point here is the use of graphics. Yes, graphics make people click and generate the Ooohs and Aaahs from funders used to browsing on 4G or broadband – but what’s the use if your home page takes 5 minutes to load and costs your user a month’s worth of precious credit? Opt for stripped down imagery and make clever use of color blocking to make your site more lively.
In fact, for services with serious themes such as those addressed by most M4Dev projects, user workshopping we ran in Zambia revealed a preference for neutral iconography vs photography, so it’s win-win.

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3. Get ready to up-skill
5 years ago, it was still relatively easy to impress users with your site – even giants like Facebook weren’t offering a good experience on more basic phone models. Today, especially in early-uptake countries like Nigeria and South Africa, more and more sites and apps are hitting the market every month, probably designed and marketed by experienced digital professionals, and your service will be jostling for attention.
You’re going to need to get a working knowledge of mobile centric design, digital content creation, social media management and digital marketing, STAT, or find a partner who does. This can be really daunting, but if a History grad can do it, so can you.
4. Don’t forget social media, but don’t rely exclusively on it either
If your users have internet access, it’s highly likely they’re on Facebook or Twitter (and increasingly, Instagram). It’s a great place to start your online community and check out your competition.
Make sure you clearly state what your page is about, and what’s in it for the user, and provide links to your website or other social media pages. Be consistent with your brand description across all these channels. Don’t start without a strategy either: if you’re not sure what this should be, find some popular pages in the countries you’re targeting and make note of what seems to get the most engagement. Don’t feel like all your posts have to be about hammering your message home relentlessly: social media for most is a place for entertainment and light relief. Keep the deeper stuff for your site.
Don’t forget that social media is a public place, and if you’re hoping for meaningful engagement with your end users, a website is going to offer you more ways to interact, and give your users a sense of safety and privacy where Facebook and Twitter won’t.
5. Talk to your users (in a voice they relate to)
Remember that you are in an unprecedented situation in the history of global development: you can speak to thousands of your target group at a time, and have them answer you…and you can answer back….that’s right, you’re actually having a conversation.
Don’t waste this amazing opportunity. Let your users know on a regular basis you want and need their feedback, make it easy and even fun for them to provide it, follow up on comments and complaints and generally make sure they know this is a service by them and for them.
The way you speak to your users is crucial too, especially if you’re trying to work with young people. We hire local content producers and community managers who match the target demographic to ensure our sites are speaking a language the audience will relate to. Especially in countries highly targeted by international aid initiatives, teenagers can detect NGO speak a mile off, and many will switch off.
These are just a few crucial starting points for anyone interested in leveraging the connective and communicative power of the web as part of their activities. Mobile is fast becoming the primary means of reaching people at scale across the global south, so don’t give up on it until you have a clear picture of local usage, rather than assuming it’s a no go. You may be surprised – and excited – when you realise what’s possible.
Isabelle Amazon-Brown specialises in designing mobile solutions to support the development and charitable sectors in Africa, building online communities to support individual and social change.