Vol. 37, No. 3

Looks good, works great: Bars optimize web content for mobile devices

by Dan Kittay

The transition from a desktop computing world to a mobile-based one continues. Ever-increasing percentages of web traffic come from mobile devices, and you can’t swing a dead iPhone without hitting a survey that shows more people conducting more of their work lives through smartphones, tablets, and other mobile devices. You can even buy a wristwatch that communicates with your phone and lets you know what mail you’ve received.

For bar associations, this shift means their members will increasingly be using mobile devices when they interact with the bar, and they will expect those interactions to be as frictionless as possible. This means taking into account the smaller screen and generally less powerful computer processing that most mobile devices offer, when compared to the traditional desktop PC.

Some bars have begun to explore developing apps, where some of their most-used functions are separated into standalone software that allows for quick interaction and mobile-optimized navigation. For others, and even for those who are developing apps, there is another area that can have a great impact on how their mobile efforts are perceived by their members: optimizing all or part of their websites to make them look good and work efficiently on mobile devices.

How do you do that?

There are different ways to optimize a website for mobile users. One is to use “responsive design,” which involves programming the site to recognize what size device is accessing it and format the content accordingly, based on rules that have been programmed into it. The site “responds” to the device by moving navigation areas, swapping smaller images for larger ones, and changing text and buttons to allow for viewing and tapping on a small screen. In responsive design, the same web page will look different on different devices.

Another way is to have the site detect when the site visitor is using a smartphone, and direct him or her to a page that is programmed to fit well on that device. The navigation will be different, and the choices offered to visitors will likely be the most often used areas of the site. There will generally be a link to the entire web site, which will return the user to the non-optimized look.

A general sampling of bars that have been working to incorporate mobile-friendliness into their sites shows them working in the latter approach, by giving their members mobile-optimized access to popular functions such as searching a member directory and seeing a calendar of events.

Michigan: Trailblazers in mobile content

The State Bar of Michigan is one of the pioneers of mobile content in the bar world: In 1999, SBM provided a summary of appellate court opinions that could be synched by users of Palm Pilots from their computers to their PDAs, says Sandi Berger, webmaster. “We created mobile-friendly web pages without graphics, that could be synched quickly and easily,” she recalls.

That summary has evolved into a daily e-journal that is mobile-friendly and has 16,000 subscribers, making it one of the bar’s most popular member benefits, she says. It has helped inspire the SBM’s tagline, “On the Go, In the Know. It’s as Mobile as You Are.”

Since then, the bar has added other mobile-optimized features, including a member directory, the bar journal, which is distributed in a flipbook format, and—for the first time in 2012—a web-based meeting app for the bar’s annual meeting. The meeting app was well received and will be repeated next year, adds Samantha Meinke, communications specialist.

Choosing the member directory as one element of the mobile strategy was easy. “We get 2.6 million searches each year,” Berger says. “Lawyers obviously like it. It was the perfect page to make mobile, and it allows them to make a quick search to get contact information.”

Unlike some other bars’ sites, SBM’s does not automatically take smartphone visitors to the mobile-optimized pages. If a visitor using a phone goes to the pages, the site will detect it and display the mobile-friendly version. Otherwise, the visitor will see the standard website view and navigation.

Georgia: Redesign steps it up

The State Bar of Georgia used a recent redesign of its website to include some functions aimed at mobile users, says Sarah Coole, director of communications. “The site had last been updated eight years ago,” she explains. “Many things have changed during that time with the capabilities of phones and tablets, and when we redesigned the site, we knew we had to step it up.”

SBG chose to direct smartphones to the highest-trafficked portions of the site: member search, event listings, and information about the bar headquarters. All are presented in a mobile app-like setting, and don’t require the user to pinch and zoom around the screen to navigate from page to page. The bar uses software from a company called Sencha, which provides one of the popular methods of optimizing the mobile experience.

While the mobile areas of the SBG site are on different pages from the main site, they access the same information to provide search results and event listings, so when the member database is updated, both the main site’s member search page and the mobile one will return the same results.

The bar has received positive feedback from members about the mobile area, Coole says, noting that for now, the bar is not contemplating adding any new mobile-optimized functions.

Chicago: Innovation helps voters, too

The Chicago Bar Association looked at its web server logs and noticed that the number of visitors using mobile devices was growing, so it decided to offer mobile versions of some popular pages, says Sharon Nolan, the bar’s director of marketing. The offerings include news, committee meeting schedule, CLE seminar schedule, and the lawyer referral service. The pages were developed by IT Manager Bradley Comer.

The CBA site detects the mobile device when someone visits the site, and redirects it to the mobile-optimized area. Visitors can tap a link to get to the full website.

The bar also developed a web-based mobile app containing its recommendations for recent judicial elections. Members of the public could view the listings while in the voting booth, says Linda Heacox, public affairs director.

North Carolina: Looking toward the future

At the beginning of the process is the North Carolina Bar Association. The bar is planning a redesign of its site, and will include some mobile optimization as part of the project, says Russell Rawlings, director of communications. “More and more people are using mobile in their work,” he explains. “We’ve gotten a lot of feedback from members who say they want it on the site.”

Rawlings says you can see the transition to mobile use simply by attending a CLE function and noting how many people are using phones and tablets to get and send information. “Just about anything you can do on a laptop, you can now do on a phone,” he says, “and the phone is easier to carry around.”

NCBA has not yet decided which approach it will take to the mobile-friendly portions of its website, but is committed to including something that will satisfy member needs now, and also offer the bar room to grow as needs change down the road. “We want to do it right,” Rawlings says. “While we can’t make it future-proofed, we want it to last a long time and be adaptable to whatever the next big thing is.”