Mobile: From responsive to mobile moments

Catherine Devine, Microsoft, USA


The last five years have seen rapid growth in the adoption of mobile, and with it the responsive design movement championed by Ethan Marcotte. Reminiscent of Y2K, organizations everywhere have kicked off responsive Web projects. And that was a good move, as 2014 became the year that mobile Internet traffic exceeded desktop traffic. However, responsive design was just the first step in a number of rapidly evolving mobile movements. There was also the mobile first movement, championed by Luke Wroblewski in his book, aptly titled, “Mobile First.” This recognized that some experiences should be designed as though mobile was the predominant platform, and with a view to the specifics of that channel, rather than only adapting from a desktop view. Then we saw the mobile-only movement, which recognized that some users only exist in the mobile space. 2015 was the year that the mobile-only audience became larger than the desktop-only audience. All of that thinking has evolved further into the idea of the mobile moment. That is, mobile usage is really a series of mobile moments, micro moments in an era of an expectation of anytime, anywhere, instantaneous information. It recognizes that it is distinctly different to how people use desktop, which is more focused on browsing, research, and working. Mobile moments are about the everyday questions we ask whenever we think of them: “What is that?” “What time are they open?” “Where can I get coffee?” “Which train do I get?” “I want to tweet this.” And the key is to design your mobile experiences for the mobile moments that make sense for your museum and for the point in the customer journey at which they occur.

Keywords: mobile, responsive web design, mobile only, mobile first, visitor experience, mobile moments

1. Introduction

The last five years have seen rapid growth in the adoption of mobile, and with it the adoption of the responsive design movement championed by Ethan Marcotte (2011) in his book Responsive Web Design. The responsive design movement advocates for a website to respond to different screen sizes so that it can be read on smaller devices such as mobile, not only on desktops. Reminiscent of Y2K projects, organizations everywhere have kicked off responsive Web projects. And that has been a good move, as 2014 became the year that mobile internet traffic exceeded desktop traffic.

However, responsive design has been just one of a number of rapidly evolving mobile movements. In his aptly titled book Mobile First, Luke Wroblewski (2011) championed the mobile-first movement in 2011. This recognized that some experiences should be designed as though mobile was the predominant platform, rather than adapting from a desktop view.

We’ve also seen the mobile-only movement, which recognized that some users only exist in the mobile space. 2015 saw the mobile-only audience exceed the size of the desktop-only audience, as reported by Comscore (2015a).

It’s worth pausing here to focus on something significant: people are predominantly using a combination of desktop and mobile, or mobile only. The traditional view of someone who only works on desktop is fading rapidly. That is, it’s only 10 percent of visitors. And yet that is where many museums are primarily focused.

This thinking has evolved further into the concept of mobile moments. Ted Schadler, of Forrester Research, and his colleagues discuss this is in their 2014 book The Mobile Mindshift (Schadler et al., 2014). That is, mobile usage is distinctly different. It is really a series of mobile moments, micro moments in an era of an expectation of anytime, anywhere, instantaneous information. Mobile moments are about all the numerous everyday questions we ask whenever we think of them and reach for our phone: “What is that?” “What time are they open?” “Where can I get coffee?” “Which train do I get?” “I want to tweet this.” Mobile moments recognizes that mobile is distinctly different to the way people use desktop, which is more focused on browsing, research, and working. The key is to design your mobile experiences for the mobile moments that make sense for your museum and the touch points in the customer journey at which they occur.

2. The rapid rise of mobile

Comscore (2014) reported that in 2014 mobile internet traffic exceeded desktop traffic, and in 2015 Comscore (2015a) reported that mobile-only traffic exceeded desktop-only traffic. Growth in mobile hasn’t slowed in the last two years and isn’t predicted to for quite some time. Comscore (2015b) reports current smartphone penetration at 77.1 percent in the United States as of July, 2015, in its annual Global Mobile Report.

That mobile is larger than desktop is an interesting statistic. What is the real impact? It means that the desktop view of the website is no longer the primary experience of your visitors. When stakeholders within your museums discuss redesigning the website, or profiling content, they predominantly default to discussions about the desktop view. Most of your visitors aren’t actually seeing that view. The conversation needs to be reversed to start with the mobile view, because that is what most of your audience will see.

This predominance and growth of mobile has been seen globally and at American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). As more time passes, that growth will only continue.

It’s worth pausing to focus on what the actual role of a website is. This is key to understanding why responsive is only the first step in a mobile journey. Websites used to be a place where any information you wanted to communicate about an organization you could. People knew that that was a place to come to obtain information. The onus was on the visitor to navigate to what they were looking for, and information architects focused on optimizing a navigation structure to improve discoverability of content.

The concept of navigating to content has faded. Search and discoverability through search engines is now the primary way to locate content on a website. Why? Because it feels more natural to a user, and the technology has become sophisticated enough to support that.

3. The mobile movements: m., responsive, adaptive, mobile first, mobile only, the app or mobile web debate

Before we dive deeper on how mobile usage is different, we’ll provide a brief history of the various movements in mobile.

Before responsive, there was the “m.” space. That is, a mobile subdomain of an existing website (e.g., Early adopters recognized the need to serve the mobile audience, and at the time a separate m. site was considered best practice. However, m. sites represented challenges: they were separate sites, and the issues of maintaining separate content and code bases soon emerged.

This was replaced with the responsive movement, which took rapid hold, championed by Ethan Marcotte (2011) in his book Responsive Web Design. Responsive was premised on the idea that a website page would respond to different screen sizes, so that it could be consumed on mobile. The benefit to organizations was a single source of code and content to maintain. Adaptive design was another derivative of the responsive approach, which also detected screen size, loading specific layouts for a defined screen size. However, there were downsides to the user experience of responsive and adaptive. A lot of that desktop website content didn’t translate to a mobile experience. In addition, mobile phones were challenged, as all content was downloaded to an environment where continuous connectivity and data speeds were less forgiving than desktop.

The challenge with these mobile movements was that they were technology led rather than business led. They focused on the technology challenges and came at the problem from a technology-first approach. They focused on how to most efficiently build out mobile for an organization, without equally focusing on how visitors actually use mobile. They were a step in the evolution. And for many, AMNH included, being able to just read a website on mobile was a key first step, and an improvement.

Later came discussion of the mobile-first and mobile-only approaches. Mobile first, championed by Luke Wroblewski (2011) in his book Mobile First, considered that you should start from a clean slate and design a mobile experience, rather than deriving your mobile experience from a scaled-down desktop experience. Once your mobile audience exceeds your desktop audience, this makes sense. At that point, why focus on the smallest percentage of your audience? It’s definitely a step in the right direction and a shift in thinking that comes from the user need rather than the technology need. Frankly, we’ve been doing desktop first for years; we just didn’t call it that. It’s worth remembering that if you’re not doing mobile first, you are by default doing desktop first. Placing that label on it may cause you to rethink your strategy.

And then there is the mobile-only approach. This assumes your audience is entirely on mobile, and this is increasingly true. For many people, their only access to the internet is mobile. It’s less expensive than running broadband at home as well, or it may not be accessible to them financially or otherwise. We’ve been operating as though the world is desktop only for years, and mobile only is not as radical a concept as it may at first appear.

Finally, there has been the increasing debate of app versus mobile Web. Should you build an app, mobile Web, or both? The interesting thing about the app and mobile Web debate has been that it is also a technology debate, premised on the idea that only one winner can emerge. App or mobile Web or both should be based on visitor behavior, not on technology arguments. It needs to shift to understanding how the content will be consumed and where the audience is.

It’s only a technology debate to the extent that mobile Web cannot yet support some of the rich experiences that apps can, but even that appears to be moving forward. The greatest benefit of apps has been their ability to create richer experiences by leveraging hardware features of phones, and the idea of a central marketplace. However, now the discoverability of apps is a real challenge, in the same way that discoverability of websites used to be. Apps potentially are at a saturation point, and standing out in a sea of apps is challenging. In addition, the process of downloading provides a natural barrier that doesn’t exist with mobile websites. Ultimately, it depends on the experience that users are seeking and how they will naturally think to engage.

Be guided by the user need, not the technology

In short, this is an increasingly fragmented and complicated space. The majority of the discussion has been centered on the technology solution and not on where the real conversation should be: how visitors want to use mobile. That is, what makes sense to the visitor experience and their mobile moments.

Well before the internet era, there was a guiding principle in technology with respect to this. You should not be led by the available technology, but by the business or visitor need. It’s not technology for technology’s sake, but rather technology as an enabler of some defined business need—a focus on outcomes. By starting with the visitor need, you can then determine the best and most applicable solution out of the available technologies.

To determine what makes sense to the visitor experience, you need to understand your visitor, why they are engaging with you, what they are doing, and the context in which they are doing it. This requires processes to understand visitors and to continuously monitor this space, as consumer behaviors and expectations adapt rapidly.

4. Movement away from static websites

It’s worth remembering that responsive shouldn’t necessarily be limited to responding to screen size. Discussion of responsive has equated to screen size because that was the most obvious and immediate issue. Without responsive screen sizes, you couldn’t consume the content on a mobile device. However, screen size is only one context. There are many other types of context: location, time of day, first time visit or not, how long they’ve been on the site, where they’ve come from, are they a member or not, have they looked at certain content previously, any other information we know about the visitor from within and external to our organizations, sentiment (how they feel), and intent. Not all of these are mature enough yet, but it’s worth seeing down the road to the possibilities. Dan Gardner and Mike Treff (2014) discuss this as a responsive philosophy. Now you’re not just responding to screen size but to many factors.

The idea of a static website that looks the same to everyone is evolving into one where everyone sees something different. Even a single individual sees something different every time they visit. It’s mental gymnastics that’s hard to wrap your head around and more difficult to discuss with stakeholders when designing websites. It’s also centered more on user needs, and what makes sense to users, rather than technology needs.

One final point on another emerging trend that shifts from a static view is that of atomic design, the concept that a Web page is no longer the smallest unit in a website. Rather, widgets (sections of pages and content) are the smallest unit, and pages are then dynamically assembled based on context and personalized needs. Widgets can then be available to multiple touch points in multiple ways.

All of these movements completely change how we think about websites, not just mobile sites.

5. How do visitors use mobile and emergence of mobile moments

This thinking has evolved further into the concept of the mobile moment, as championed by Forrester in their book The Mobile Mindshift. That is, mobile usage is really a series of independent mobile moments. Mobile moments are the two hundred times a day, on average, according to Forrester, that you think of something and pick up your phone to find the answer. Mobile moments are about all of the everyday questions we ask whenever we think of them: “What is that?” “What time are they open?” “Where can I get coffee?” “Which train do I get?” “I want to tweet this.” We’ve been trained that when you think of something, wherever you are, you can reach for your phone and find whatever you want immediately. They are short, frequent, and intentional interactions. The key is to design your mobile experiences for the mobile moments that make sense for your museum, and for the point in the visitor journey at which they occur. No longer are visitors expecting to be able to navigate to find the information they want; they expect it is there in the fewest taps possible.

But let’s consider more about what those mobile moments really might look like for our visitors—something a little more tangible to understand how distinctly different it is to desktop.

  • Visitors are on their way to the museum, walking down the stairs into the subway, while simultaneously trying to hold a child in one hand and a bag in another, and working out which subway stop to get off on.
  • They are walking around the entrance to the Museum and trying to find their tickets.
  • They are inside the Museum in front of an exhibit that their child is enamored with, but they have no idea what it is, and they want to answer their child’s questions.
  • Their child fell in love with the Titanosaur, and later on that evening during bedtime stories their child wants to know more about it.
  • They are in a coffee shop with friends discussing what to do today.

I recently met a friend for drinks, and on at least ten occasions over the course of our two-hour conversation we picked up our phones and looked something up relevant to our conversation. I’m sure this is a low number for many audiences. We looked up photos, searched for a restaurant to go to afterwards, booked a table, googled a mutual friend, checked the weather, texted another friend to join us, chatted to another friend, googled something in the news. None of these interactions took more than a few seconds, and where we couldn’t find information we abandoned quickly. We didn’t read anything that was more than bite-sized, and while we did this, we continued chatting. It was all very seamless. These are all mobile moments, and we need to identify what those moments are for our visitors and how we will meet their needs.

It’s important to note that in none of those scenarios is a visitor navigating through a static site to find the information deeply embedded within it, and each interaction is extremely short.

6. The mobile roadmap

Responsive design is not the end game and is only a first step in playing in the mobile space. Many organizations have checked the box on mobile optimized by having a responsive site. It’s only the start; it’s the price of admission.

There is no doubt that responsive delivers efficiencies in managing code and content that are definitely beneficial, but a “shrink and squeeze” approach, as referred to by Julie Ask et al. (2016), in the Forrester research paper Mobile Mindshift Maturity Framework, is the first step in mobile maturity. We need to get to the heart of how our visitors use mobile.

In 2016, not having a responsive site, at a minimum, is equivalent to not having a website ten years ago. You wouldn’t do it. The primary audience is now on mobile, and by focusing on desktop you are missing a large piece of your audience.

The challenge for museums is that mobile is not an insignificant or one-off investment. Mobile requires increasingly sophisticated thinking, complexity, and a shift in organizational thinking from we’ve had to deal with previously. All this is challenging to bite off in one go from the perspective of effort, level of change, and level of investment, but it’s worth being able to see down the road and develop a roadmap of where you want to go.

AMNH focused on building out a responsive website, which it launched in January 2014, with the primary goal of ensuring that it was at least readable on a mobile phone. With a rapidly growing mobile audience we needed to deliver quickly. The mobile audience was at 11 percent when we initiated the program, 20 percent when we started the project, and 35 percent when we launched it six months later. On any given weekend, we are now peaking at 60 percent to 70 percent mobile. We knew that it would take a significant period of time to get to a point where we could write mobile-specific content, focus on which content made sense on a mobile, and deliver on contextual and personalized content. In the spirit of continuous delivery, we determined it was better to start than it was to wait until it was perfect, and then we would continuously build on it.

In May 2015, we delivered a project to introduce digital ticketing channels to AMNH. We built out kiosk, Web, and mobile ticket purchases. While this was built as a single responsive set of code, the experience in each channel is distinctly different. It was focused on how visitors use each channel. Everyone inherently understood and accepted that kiosk and Web were different experiences. That was not as easily understood when we tried to differentiate the Web and the mobile ticketing experience. When it comes to mobile, we can tend to be more dismissive about how differently it is used.

In February 2016, we delivered on our first venture into moving away from static experiences. With the delivery of Explorer, we ventured into contextual experiences based on location. The app knows where you are in the museum, and therefore everyone sees a different experience. Second, we made a first step into personalized experiences. Not only does it know where you are, but also it is a function of what you’re interested in. Not everyone is interested in dinosaurs. There are so many elements of context and personalization, but starting small with location and interests has allowed us to experiment with the idea of everyone seeing something different, rather than a static experience that required you to navigate to what you want. This app was also our first significant foray into developing content specifically for mobile consumption and for the visitor journey that it was supporting.

7. Visitor journey and mobile moments

For the Museums and the Web Asia conference in 2015, I presented on the concept of visitor journey—the idea that visitors take a journey with us through many touch points. Their experience doesn’t start and end in a single touch point, such as an app or a website. Those journeys transcend before, during, and after the visit; are not purely digital experiences and tightly integrated with physical experiences; extend beyond the museum’s owned channels to third-party channels; and transcend many different devices and touch points. We need to understand how to build those types of complex experiences. In designing experiences, we need to understand how people experience the Museum. We need to design from the perspective of handing off from one touch point to another, even physical touch points, rather than design as though the experience starts and ends in a single channel or single device.

In this context, visits are not limited to the concept of a traditional museum visit but rather are used generically to describe the different audience segments and methods of engaging.

This thinking gets to the heart of why we build digital experiences. We don’t build them to meet the latest trends in design; we build experiences to meet the needs of visitors who drive to some larger goal for the institution and the visitor. Digital strategy is not strategy for digital; it’s part of the organization’s strategy. The primary reason to be investing in digital is to leverage the transformational opportunities of digital to meet the institution’s objectives and mission. For the American Museum of Natural History, that mission is about discovering, interpreting, and disseminating science. It’s not about being in digital for the sake of digital. When you consider digital experiences and in particular mobile experiences this way, you realize that responsive, adaptive, etc. are all means to an end—they aren’t the end. Once you have the end in mind, you can make informed decisions on the best path, and responsive, adaptive, etc. become tools in the toolkit.

8. The end of the beginning for mobile

The rise of mobile has been interesting for museums. Although there has been a rapid rise in adoption of mobile in the broader world, and although we all personally use mobile a great deal in our everyday lives, you will still hear many opinions voiced within museums that mobile is irrelevant, that no one uses apps in the museum, that no-one buys anything on mobile. It’s worth dispelling some myths and considering their application to other emerging technologies where we’ll hear these arguments again.

First, this is just the end of the beginning for mobile. We are only scratching the surface of what mobile is capable of, how it will be adopted, and how it will be integrated into our lives. All technologies mature and see adoption progress over time. Because adoption in museums is not 100 percent of the audience does not make them irrelevant.

Second, mobile is considered a significant influencer in transactions. Because the transaction doesn’t happen in that touch point doesn’t mean that mobile is not influential. This gets to the heart of the idea of visitor journey: the experience is not centered in a single channel, but hands off from one channel to another.

Third, even if adoption is not 100 percent, it is still another valid audience. In a similar vein to the app versus Web debate, it doesn’t need to be a mobile versus traditional debate—it can be both. Our audiences are fragmented in their preferences, and where previously we only needed to support a single way to interface with our visitors, we now need to support many different ways to meet our audience where they are.

Finally, most mobile transactional experiences are not yet optimized for the way that people think and act on mobile. Low usage doesn’t mean there is low demand; it can also mean that there is no product or not the right product.

If this is just the end of the beginning for mobile, when is the right time to be developing more sophisticated views of mobile? These are significant investments and significant shifts in culture for museums. We need a way to not be overinvesting, but also be there just in time. In the book The Mobile Mindshift, Schadler et al. (2014) from Forrester Research propose a framework that deals with this. This framework considers mobile intensity and mobile expectations and their relativity to each other.

Mobile intensity is the measure of how much of your audience is immersed in mobile now. It considers frequency and diversity of use and number of devices used. Currently, the average score in the United States is 30, on a scale from 0 to 100. Mobile expectations is what your audience expects of you. Currently, the average score in the United States is 44, also on a scale of 0 to 100. Numbers vary by demographic and industry segment, but these numbers reflect an overall view of consumers.

A gap between intensity and expectations, where expectations exceed intensity, suggests untapped demand for mobile services.

Visitor expectations are framed in their digital experience in the broader world, not only what is normal in the museum space. It presents a challenge for museums as the availability and adoption of digital solutions increases at a faster pace than museums can either afford to implement or can culturally adapt to the pace of change, and the price of entry continues to increase. The gap between museums and the world experience continues to widen.

9. Where mobile is heading next

While we are only scratching the surface of mobile, it’s no reason to think that it will always be mobile. There is no doubt that there will be another generation where the concept of tapping on a small screen makes no sense, and new technologies will gain mainstream adoption.

Mobile is a tool in the digital transformation toolkit. It allows us to do things that we couldn’t earlier and to introduce efficiencies to our operations (e.g., presenting different lenses on content, presenting content in different languages, knowing where you are rather than having to find out where you are, allowing you to skip ticket lines).

Mobile will not always be what it is today. Mobile adoption will continue to grow. Desktop will become less and less important. Mobile will dominate with more adoption and a broader range of use cases. And eventually, mobile will go the way of desktop, iPods, dial-up, and other technologies before it.

It’s a tired cliché that the only constant is change, but something new will eventually emerge and we’ll have to be ready. In the same way that iPods changed music delivery, after a relatively short life even they have devolved into insignificance.

For now, though, in the age of mobile, we will see more use cases emerge than exist today, as phones become more sophisticated and there are more technologies that they can connect to. It is the one ubiquitous and transformative device, at least for this decade. As the Internet of Things (IoT), spaces, everything, healthtech, natural language interfaces, and artificial intelligence progress, mobile will become more significant and more of a central hub in our lives. All aspects of our lives will be managed via mobile: health, travel, finances, errands, ordering anything. It will be strange that experiencing museums aren’t.

The idea of distinguishing mobile as mobile will be redundant, in the same way that the word digital will become redundant, and the word desktop is now redundant. It will just be the way we do things.

10. Conclusion

Mobile is so much more than a responsive website. A responsive website is just table stakes, and while responsive delivers efficiencies in managing technology and content, only focusing on those aspects doesn’t mean that you can check off mobile for your museum. It is often centered in a desktop experience that responds to a mobile screen size and can lose sight of the end-user need and meeting that need. Mobile is about understanding how people really use it, what they need, and how quickly we can deliver that to them.

We need to avoid falling into the technology trap of debating the validity of various technical approaches and losing sight of what we are trying to achieve. Central is taking the visitor-centric approach of seeing the world from the perspective of the visitor, not from a technology or museum perspective. Out of that will fall the most appropriate technology.

We also need to avoid falling into the trap of thinking that mobile is only a small part of the market and therefore tangential. It is a transformative technology in the same way that the internet and personal computing were transformative technologies. It’s not as far along, despite the ubiquity of smartphones, but we will continue to see more uses of it and more intense adoption.

And then mobile will fade away, and we as museums need to be prepared for the next wave of innovation. It’s not about adopting innovative technologies for the sake of it, but because visitor expectations are framed in our everyday life experience, and our everyday life experiences and expectations are evolving rapidly.


Ask, Julie, Patti Freeman Evans, Nicole Dvorak, Michael Facemire, Jeffrey S. Hammond, Laura Naparstek, & Nicole Lesperance. (2016). Mobile Mind Shift Maturity Framework. Forrester Research. Available

Comscore. (2014). Mobile Now Exceeds PC. Available

Comscore. (2015a). Number of Mobile Only Internet Users Exceeds Desktop Only in the US. Available

Comscore. (2015b). July 2015 US Smartphone Subscriber Market Share. Available

Gardner, Dan, & Mike Treff. (2014). “The Next Big Thing In Responsive Design.” Fast Company Design Magazine. September 23, 2014. Available

Marcotte, Ethan. (2011). Responsive Web Design. Available

Schadler, Ted, Josh Bernoff, & Julie Ask. (2014). The Mobile Mind Shift: Engineer Your Business To Win in the Mobile Moment. Forrester Research. Available

Wroblewski, Luke. (2011). Mobile First. Available

Cite as:
Devine, Catherine. "Mobile: From responsive to mobile moments." MW2016: Museums and the Web 2016. Published January 28, 2016. Consulted .