Adapting websites for mobile devices

As the number of people who own smartphones and tablets rises astronomically, law firms should be thinking about implementing a mobile site, creating an app or at least ensuring that their web site is responsive. If they do not, they risk frustrating users and losing valuable business.

Recent studies have shown that more and more people are using a variety of devices to browse the internet and that they’re using specific devices at specific times of the day, eg a smartphone during their commute or a tablet in the evening.

Google has also indicated that it will be giving priority to mobile-enabled sites in search results delivered to smartphone and tablet devices, thus ensuring that users see the most useful set of results.

What are the options?

As Sue Bramall explained in a previous issue, when looking to ensure their websites are mobile-friendly, law firms can adopt responsive or adaptive design or develop a dedicated mobile site. To these I would add a further option: developing an app.

But which option is right for your business? That ultimately depends on how visitors use your website and what they are trying to do.

Responsive/adaptive design

How are these two types of design distinguished?

A website built with adaptive design will adapt to a pre-defined set of different screen resolutions, ie each resolution requires a different template. This requires a number of different templates and runs the risk that a new type of device might need a new template to give the best result.

A website built with responsive design will adapt to any screen resolution using just the one template, but it will be built in such a way that the elements on the page can resize (using percentage widths) or move as necessary. This delivers the message in a format that best suits the user’s current browsing experience, whatever device they are using.

The needs of most law firms will be more than adequately served by building a website using either of these methods. Although a site of this form may cost more to design and build than a standard website, it costs less in the long term as you will have only one site to maintain, rather than the two you would have if you chose to build and maintain a standalone mobile site.

Factors to consider

Users accessing legal sites on a mobile device generally have similar goals to users accessing legal sites from a PC or laptop: to find an answer to a question; to look for a solicitor; to find contact details or a map to find their current solicitor. Here are some factors to consider.

What information does the searcher want/need?

Visitors to your site are looking primarily for the information contained within the main content on your pages. For example, if a searcher types in ‘family solicitor Huddersfield’ then it must be immediately obvious that you can, in fact, provide a family solicitor in Huddersfield. Any additional calls to action or information should be served below this main block of text. Mobile users do not need to see sidebars, blog feeds, social media feeds, news items or other calls to action; all they need to see is the information for which they searched and a way to contact you.

Can they find this information easily?

If they can’t find all the information they need on the page they have landed on, or they want to browse further (for example, they may want to see the credentials of your team), then ensure the navigation is easy to use via a touchscreen.

What action do we want the user to take?

Driving visitors to all the rich information on your site is great when they are just browsing, but your main consideration should always be getting them to contact you. Make sure your forms are easy to use on a small screen, that your telephone number is easy to find and is clickable on a mobile phone and that the navigation is easily accessible. Provide a map on your contact page which works with the Google API so that clients can access directions based on their location.

Are you slowing your users down?

People accessing your site from a mobile device may be using wobbly mobile internet. An image-rich site that loads quickly on high speed broadband will take forever to load for a user on less-than-3G connection on a train at rush hour. Make sure that your design takes this into consideration and that page load speeds are optimised for mobile users.

Also, make sure pages are not so long that they load slowly and force users to scroll endlessly to find the information they need. Remove unnecessary elements from the page for mobile browsers and ensure that long pages don’t load all at once – instead use scripts to load content as users scroll down the page.

Dedicated mobile sites

Although a responsive site is the right solution for most businesses, some businesses may find that making their current site responsive (or building a new, responsive site) is cost prohibitive in the short term because of the complexity of their site and its functionality. In this instance, a standalone mobile site may be a quicker option for the short term.

For example, one of our clients, a specialist legal industry recruiter, built a mobile version of their site specifically aimed at job candidates searching for job vacancies and providing a stripped down version of the site with the job search functionality as the focal point. In the two weeks following the launch of the new mobile site, the number of visitors more than doubled.

Generally, mobile sites provide only key features and core calls to action. Although they are easier to use for smartphone visitors, they will not necessarily provide access to all a website’s features and information. For this, visitors will have to view the main site which, if not entirely mobile friendly, would defeat the purpose of having a mobile site in the first place. This issue is both a feature and a drawback; whilst it is great for improving conversions, it can make it difficult for mobile visitors who want additional information before deciding whether or not to contact you.

Mobile sites do have the benefit of being cheaper in the short term, as they strip out weighty design elements in favour of simplicity. However, a mobile site will cost more in the long term to maintain and some users may find the lack of parity with the normal site frustrating.

A dedicated mobile site will sit on a different URL (generally or When someone visits the site, the server will check what device/screen resolution they are using and show them the most appropriate version.

A mobile app

Apps can be very expensive to develop and are often discarded once the initial novelty wears off. However, providing clients with an app could be of benefit if a user needs to access a specific function regularly. For example, a case management feature may work well as an app, as might a feature which enables users to generate and update their own legal documentation, such as a will or an employment contract.

Do it well

Whatever you decide, invest in doing it well. In the long term, investing in a responsive site designed to suit the way users interact with your content will normally provide the best solution for most law firms. The number of people using smartphones and tablets to browse the internet will only increase, thus committing the time and resources to creating a website that provides the right content to the right users on the right devices is critical. Spending a bit of time and money to understand your users and creating the right solution now will impact on the number of new clients you acquire via the web in the future.

Mindy Gofton has been working in the search marketing industry since 2003, both in-house and in an agency environment. She is currently Head of Digital Strategies at I-COM in Manchester, a full service online marketing agency specialising in web design and digital marketing for the legal industry.


2 thoughts on “Adapting websites for mobile devices

  1. Great article with a couple of caveats:

    1. If mobile sites are integrated with CMS (as ours are) the maintenance costs are massively less then if an app is used. That was one of the big reasons we decided to go down the route of allowing our clients to have mobile website generators integrated with their CMSs…our clients can run up to £65 on a £44 per month licence and changing any one or adding new ones takes only a couple of minutes and no technical knowledge. No comparison at all.

    2. The other reason is that by using mobile sites and generating them, you can TARGET your material to the user, making it relevant to them and valuable. The ”˜general firm’s mobile site’ is, we think, a bit of a waste of time and makes the ”˜adaptive/reactive issue less significant: no-one is interested in your firm. They are interested in their own problems/interests/issues…so the information they access from you should largely be targeted at those.

  2. Hi Joe, what approach works depends on the needs of the firm in question. We work with law firms who manage and maintain content on large sites as well as multiple niche microsites and they could easily use a CMS-based application without a great deal of guidance. We also work with solicitors who have neither the time nor the inclination to worry about it. It depends on the needs of the business as to what will work best – and what we’d recommend.

    The reason I do believe that ultimately, people should opt for responsive design if they’re building from scratch is that it means they aren’t limiting themselves – a responsive site will work on any device, not just desktop/mobile. People use devices with so many different screen sizes and resolutions that the best way to ensure that ANY of your content is easily accessible – be that one service page or case study, the contact page or the blog. What will benefit law firms the most is being able to accomodate as many people as possible and if a business has the budget in the short term then a responsive design is the best way to do this.

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