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Mobile First, Mobile Only, Mobile Now

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June 19, 2023
John Burns

It’s depressing – when you go to a restaurant and see a couple or a small group of diners all on their phones – not saying a word to each other. This common scene in restaurants across the globe is one of many indicators that our smartphones – our mobile devices – are now an integral part of our lives. We communicate, play, store memories, listen, share, and shop every day on these devices. They’re ubiquitous in our day-to-day activities.

It's alarming to see that we in the hotel industry, and the broader travel industry, lag far behind many other service vendors in adapting to this new lifestyle appliance.

Other areas that rely on online activity have done better. Online community operators – Facebook, Instagram, WeChat – have done better. Online recreation – video gaming, online gambling has done better. And even other areas of retail have done better. How has it happened that we in hospitality – early adapters of the Internet – have failed to seriously and success- fully adapt to the environment and opportunity of smartphones and the technology to present and sell through them?

It’s an interesting question, but debating it is of little use. What matters right now is that we come to the realization that our customers – and the ways they shop for everything, including accommodation – have changed. In this key area, too many of us aren’t changing with them.

Screen space is a precious resource. Every square centimeter of real estate on a mobile device screen offers a vital opportunity to communicate information and convey a sales message. But with guests favoring their mobile devices for internet access over desktop units, laptops, and even pads, are we truly applying the sentiment “mobile first” in our e-commerce design practices? In my experience, the answer is no.

When I meet with hotel company website design staff (or agency staff working on their behalf), they inevitably show me their work on desktop PC screens. It’s a natural inclination. But I suggest we really need to be mobile first – and that means designing first and foremost for mobile device screens. The only way to judge the fidelity of the presentation of that information on a mobile device screen is to view it on a mobile device screen.

How do we change our thinking, and our processes, for designing online screen displays? It will require a deliberate and sustained effort to consistently look at screen designs and revisions – indeed, to look at all of our online public-facing content – on a mobile device screen prior to viewing it on a larger device. One useful idea comes from our very adept e-commerce – especially mobile device e-commerce – competitor, Airbnb.

About a decade ago, executives at Airbnb decided that one day each week everyone should use a smartphone, rather than a larger computer, to complete their work. This served as an up-close reminder of the environment in which so many Airbnb customers were researching and selecting their lodging choices.

I don’t know how long Airbnb continued this practice, but I think the concept was commendable and important on multiple levels. It was a reminder of much of society’s transition from “mobile too” to “mobile first,” and swiftly on to “mobile only”.

I still see too great a disconnect between how we in the global hotel industry know our prospective guests are living – and shopping for lodging – and how we’re developing online content that aims to win their hearts, minds, and wallets. Now – not soon and certainly not later – we must refocus our development efforts on mobile device sized displays; we must commit to presentation excellence in that limited – and precious– environment.

PS: If you’re reading this online, what type of device are you using? A mobile?

JOHN BURNS is the president of Hospitality Technology Consulting. He can be reached at John@burns-htc.com.

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