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III. Creating A Mobile Web Strategy for Legal Aid Sites

Developing a useful mobile site requires a good deal of planning. Programs may be tempted to limit their mobilization efforts to changing the CSS and graphics on their existing desktop site so that it is sufficiently viewable on a phone screen. However, this approach creates a very poor mobile user experience. Desktop sites were designed for larger screens and higher-quality input devices - the desktop experience simply does not translate into the mobile environment. In user studies conducted by the Nielsen Norman Group in 2009 and 2011, mobile users' success rate on assigned web tasks increased significantly when users were on mobile optimized versions of a website. Success rates were better still when users were on mobile apps.  

Assess content for mobile browsing
A successful mobile conversion requires website teams to evaluate whether every component of their desktop site is appropriate for mobile, as well as whether entirely new features should be built for the mobile site. Some existing items, such as office directions and important phones contacts, clearly belong on the mobile site. Other parts, such as lengthy booklets and fillable court forms, should almost certainly be excluded. Much of a site's existing content probably falls somewhere in between: material that probably belongs on a mobile site but needs to be significantly repurposed to work properly on phones.

Content conversion was discussed extensively in Part I of the December 2009 NTAP-PTLA Mobile Web Training (materials here: The following images provide a comparison of desktop content, material optimized for the hard-coded PTLA mobile site and the same material on the current PTLA mobile site


Rights of Tenants in Maine, one of the most visited resources on the Pine Tree website has already been “chunked” for the new Drupal desktop site. Here you see the “Tips Before You Rent” chunk, complete with header, footer, text boxes, lots of internal links and side column. The text is in a fairly narrow column, difficult to read in a mobile device without re-sizing.

In the current Drupal mobile version the header, footer side column and text boxes have been stripped. The text appears in a single column. Internal links still appear, and the text scrolls for more than four screens.

In the original hard-coded mobile site there was only a small mobile header, no footer, no side column, no text boxes, and no internal links. The lack of side margins and internal links allowed only three pages of scrolling. There is a tradeoff, both in the use of scrolling and the density of internal links between the Drupal mobile site and the hard-coded site.

Tailor the site for specific mobile devices
Developers must also create sites that are usable on types of mobile devices they know or assume will access the site. A simple of way of figuring out what devices will access your mobile site is to evaluate the server access logs for your desktop site. This will tell you the top browser user agents that are accessing your current site.  The experience of Pine Tree Legal Assistance and Illinois Legal Aid Online suggest that a majority of mobile traffic in the neighborhood of 90 - 95 percent is from iOS and Android mobile devices.  A successful mobile web strategy involves targeting both the right user experiences and the right devices. Mobile developers need to optimize sites for the mobile users needs. Mobile users are often looking to get something very different out of a website than their desktop counterparts. In the legal aid context, that may mean directions to a field office or courthouse, a help line phone number, or quick guidance on an emerging legal problem. Successful mobile developers should constantly be asking themselves, "Under what circumstances would someone want to be using our mobile site?" All components of the mobile site should reflect the answer.  

Some general guidelines
Developers can make some assumptions about what users will be doing on their mobile site.

  • Almost no users will want to read text-heavy content. Content should be re-written for the mobile user by presenting content in small segments. (This is sometimes called "chunking.")
  • Multi-field forms are very difficult for users with awkward inputs.
  • Legal aiders should note that HotDocs and A2J Author don't work on mobile devices.
  • Interactive PDF forms are questionable and work only with specialized programs.] Even if they did work, document assembly in a mobile context is not a good idea.

Developers must also create sites that are usable on types of mobile devices they know or anticipate that users will utilize to access their site. A simple of way to figure out targeted devices is to check a site's server access logs and see which devices are currently reaching the site. Detailed instructions for checking logs on an Apache server are available on the Apache server website.

Nielsen recommends not attempting to write for low-end feature phones. The web browsing experience is so miserable that most people don’t try it. Mobile traffic to legal aid websites (now running about 16%) bears that out. Traffic is almost entirely iPhone and Android with a small presence for Windows mobile.