Phoning In the Smartphone Experience

Everywhere I turn, marketers and developers are looking to treat all technology platforms the same, ignoring their unique characteristics and the needs of their audiences when creating brand-based user experiences. This approach is understandable: One of the least enjoyable steps in developing an online experience is making the site work on each browser — a challenge that applies tenfold in mobile.

But whether you’re migrating a successful online concept to mobile or starting fresh with a cross-platform service, you need to take each platform’s user experience into account — or risk diminishing the value of your offering.

To start, look at each class of device as if you were creating software for it. No platform should ever be an afterthought. (To be fair, I do recognize and respect the need to be efficient, and with as many as eight major operating systems in the mobile universe, developing products can become costly and complex.)

As with any good strategy, do your research and, based on where your audience is, see where your best opportunity lies. Then look at ways of implementing features unique to each OS. One example is the iPhone’s ability to generate 3-D maps, a capability that doesn’t exist on all platforms, which is good for iPhone users, who expect unique experiences. That’s why they purchased an iPhone. 

With more than 50 percent of smartphone users downloading apps, capturing a customer before your competitor does often becomes a features versus content competition. As marketers, we’re quick to build apps that fit a popular medium such as the iPad or iPhone. Media companies often take a different approach by designing for all mobile platforms and developing a scalable system. These companies rely on brands to generate revenue, so their content needs to be available for consumption if a user switches from his computer to a smartphone, tablet or e-reader.

Beyond spreading content, creating new and engaging opportunities is a way to capture brand attention. What’s the easiest way to do this? Creating digital experiences that are unique to each platform.  

A brand that seemed to understand this (although it missed the boat in other ways) is The New York Times, which developed digital applications across multiple mobile and personal computer platforms. Instead of copying the experience across each platform, The Times created one that had a consistent base while capturing features unique to each OS experience. For example, on the iPad you can download Editors Choice, an app that mirrors the print version by offering popular and recent stories by category. One of the company’s BlackBerry apps features the paper’s business stories, which makes sense, considering the BlackBerry’s reputation as a device carried by business-minded consumers. 

But while The New York Times took the right steps to create experiences based on the target audience of each platform, it missed opportunities to leverage one-off features unique to specific platforms. The Times’ standard news apps for the iPhone, Android and BlackBerry are similar. Adding a feature such as push notification to notify users when new stories break would not only leverage a feature available on the iPhone and BlackBerry, and not on the Android, but would provide users of these platforms the app experience they have come to expect. Additionally, for a news company, this feature also keeps the brand and app at the top of users’ minds.

As competition between platforms continues to grow and new competitors enter the field, such as the Windows 7 Phone, marketers need to not only look at where their audience is and what one-off features they should add, but the actual device itself.