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Usablenet's U-Experience Platform Aims to Maximize Mobile, Web, and Native App Performance

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Most mobile device users expect web pages to load as fast as they do on desktops and don't like when interfaces and apps perform sluggishly on their devices. Prioritizing mobile web page and app performance counters this problem.

There's significant support, particularly in the IBM i world, for the philosophy that the best way to move into the mobile arena is simply to provide mobile devices access to a single base of code for all websites. So entire desktop files are downloaded to the mobile-device browser, which suppresses unnecessary elements, and the output is tailored to the device's screen dimensions. This is called Responsive Design, and one concern with this approach is that most of the heavy lifting is done client-side on the device itself. This is less of an issue for desktop and laptop devices than smartphones because the former tend to have more computational resources available.

Responsive Web Design vs. Adaptive Delivery

Responsive Design has its appeals, like making sure every user is looking at the same content, centralizing development tasks by leveraging a single codebase for each screen type, and simplifying deployment tasks because all devices download the same web pages regardless of their target device.

What Responsive Design doesn't take into account is the subtle effect that using a mobile device has on the user experience as well as the mobile user’s expectations after getting used to accessing apps and web pages on the larger screens of desktops and laptops. For one thing, server-based app UIs and web pages have a lot more display space taken up by elements that mobile-device screens simply can't or don't show. Nonetheless, the mobile browser has to process and discard all that, which usually means slower load times, and often, a less-than-optimal visual experience for small-screen users. For another thing, mobile users may want to carry out only one specific function, not browse an entire app or site. They don't need all the extra clutter. Annoying your potential customers, and maybe even your employees, can easily become counterproductive.

A more sophisticated approach in development of applications for the web and mobile devices, called Adaptive Delivery, emphasizes the importance of how well web-based content performs on each respective display device. The idea involves letting the server differentiate between the types of mobile devices trying to access a site and then varying the UI and pages delivered to improve not only performance, but functionality. This approach has the advantages of tailoring user experience to focus on the functions mobile users most likely want to carry out and the added benefit of delivering content to the mobile device that best fits the smaller display size. That way, content loads faster and looks better. An example of this would be an airline that used U-Experience to consolidate its booking system. Previously, customers needed to consult three different URLs for flight information. By using U-Experience, the airline was able to consolidate flight information and booking functions into a single screen.

What's more, Adaptive Delivery works for websites without requiring changes to website coding because it delivers content as a web service that can then be modified for presentation to specific devices and even specific users/experiences.

U-Experience Earns its Name by Emphasizing the User Experience

A mobile development platform, Usablenet's U-Experience centers its attention on Adaptive Delivery and performance on specific devices. Available as a cloud-based managed service with access to the development tools (e.g., U-Develop) that can be licensed for internal development, U-Experience contains four main components. It has a backend that retrieves data from any source and delivers it as a web service, a frontend that consumes data and builds a customized UI for it, a control module (i.e., U-Control) that lets non-technical users build and publish content to content modules supported on mobile and tablet sites, and a U-Campaign element that lets non-technical users build mobile landing pages and campaign sites from scratch without requiring developer support. The platform can also integrate third-party functionality as needed to enhance the user experience (UX).

U-Develop, Usablenet's developer portal, assists developers who want to develop their own web-based content (e.g., websites and webviews in apps) using in-house resources. With U-Develop, clients can access Usablenet technologies and developer tools within a cloud-based staging and production environment.

U-Experience can consume any data source. Putting the data into a JSON or XML web service enables development of context-based experiences for each supported mobile and multichannel device without affecting the data sources in any way. The mobile content-publishing tools enable users to change and preview content before publishing and let U-Experience support integrated marketing promotions. What's displayed can also be adjusted, depending on whether the web-based content is primarily commercial or simply informational.

U-Experience can do this because it maps content and functionalities between the source and mobile device. So when accessing a desktop site on a mobile device, users are redirected to specific URLs where mobile-optimized experiences for that particular device await. Dedicated mobile sites provide users with a device-tailored experience and enable detail control for multichannel situations. This decreases page weight and also maintenance tasks because changes can be made to any device-specific web page without affecting every other device. As an option, device pages can also be handled via business rules that create a data layer from multiple sources to deliver a unique experience. In addition, custom pages for each device type can include streamlined navigation that, for example, presents only purchase and browsing options to mobile device users.

Client-side enhancements on user experience are coded via U-FX, a proprietary JavaScript library available in U-Experience. Developers aren't required to use this library; they can use any other frontend library they're comfortable with. Possible enhancements include changing page interactions, adding dynamically loaded content (e.g., images to an image carousel), and attaching standard-effects widgets (e.g., pinching and zooming on a given page). The platform also uses HTML5 application frameworks to help developers build lightweight experiences and compelling UIs.

U-Experience Customized Features

U-Experience's architecture enables customization of channels for each device type. For example, push notifications can be handled differently for mobile phones and tablets. Deep Linking can give device users access to specific pieces of content on a website and optionally bypass a website's home page or advertising. In addition, U-Experience is capable of building websites for desktop access, generating independent pages that aren’t part of a desktop-accessible website, or using any data source (e.g., APIs) to generate a U-Experience site.

Developer support is important in implementing Deep Linking, which is a two-step process. First, the client's infrastructure team articulates the existing business logic within either their network infrastructure or their web application. This enables the app using Deep Linking to detect user agents and forward requests from supported devices to the U-Experience platform. Second, U-Experience follows its established business rules to process the request and determine what's needed to deliver the proper experience and how the page should render on the specific device making the request.

Usablenet offers U-Experience standalone or as part of a suite of services that also include app and web development, QA testing, accessibility audits, UX research, user testing, prototyping, API development, and transformation of SOAP services into web services. Usablenet developers implement the business logic needed to process all available sources, convert them into a layer of APIs, and consume those APIs into an adaptive user interface. The company's infrastructure team sets up environments for each project and maintains Usablenet's staging and production infrastructure across four data centers.

Usablenet's products and services are consistent with the WCAG 2.0 AA web accessibility standards and support all major smartphones, tablets, and operating systems. UE is also PCI-DSS compliant, and Usablenet's hosting centers are SSAE 16/ISO audited and certified.

The Choice Is Yours

The suitability of using Responsive Design as opposed to Adaptive Delivery will vary from enterprise to enterprise, flow to flow, and area to area, based on factors such as app and website function, the ongoing need for change management, and whether server-side advantages outweigh those of focusing on mobile-device performance. The user experience must be balanced against business needs.

However, if Adaptive Delivery seems like the more important route to follow for your particular business type, Usablenet's U-Experience could be a viable solution worth considering.

John Ghrist

John Ghrist has been a journalist, programmer, and systems manager in the computer industry since 1982. He has covered the market for IBM i servers and their predecessor platforms for more than a quarter century and has attended more than 25 COMMON conferences. A former editor-in-chief with Defense Computing and a senior editor with SystemiNEWS, John has written and edited hundreds of articles and blogs for more than a dozen print and electronic publications. You can reach him at ghrist@comcast.net.

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