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Reaching Users in a Multi-Device World



January 26, 2016

We’ve all been there. You’re lying in bed unable to fall asleep, so you grab your phone to browse Facebook or Instagram. One thing leads to another — now you’re shopping for your nephew’s birthday gift, you add a few things to your shopping cart and, finally, you fall asleep with a happy heart and a full cart. The next morning, you realize that you never purchased the gift, but that’s okay because you wanted to do a little more research before pulling the trigger. So, you grab your laptop and do a little price comparison (maybe a little at home, a little at work, etc.) before you make the purchase. This scenario and ones like it are common digital practice among users today. A consumer survey revealed that 79 percent of people aged 18 to 64 are on three or more devices every day, even though we rarely think about it.

The Multi-Device User

Let’s take a look at what this trend means for various generations of users. While millennials do own the highest percentage of smartphones, they aren’t by any means exclusive smartphone users. More than half also use tablets and almost 75 percent use good ’ol computers. GenXers, on the other hand, lead as the biggest device switchers across smartphones, tablets and computers. And don’t forget about Baby Boomers — they’re rapidly catching up with the younger generations with over half of users ages 50 to 64 and one third of users 65+ also owning a smartphone in addition to other devices.

chart: percentage of device owners by age
*Pew Research Center, “The Demographics of Device Ownership.”

Why do we all need so many devices? Convenience and availability are definitely factors that contribute to smartphone and tablet usage, but why haven’t we all ditched our desktops and laptops? The time a task takes affects our device preference, for instance, checking the weather compared to choosing an insurance plan. As the graph below shows, for complex tasks, users across generations still prefer desktop devices, and for quick and frequent tasks, there is a preference towards smartphones. We can’t settle on one option.

chart: device preferences
**Millward Brown Digital, “Are You Getting Audiences Right?”

Let’s look at how this plays out in a specific scenario. If we focus on online shopping habits, statistics show that 87 percent of smartphone and tablet owners in the US use their devices for shopping activities (browsing, price comparison, consumer research), but only 30 percent of all e‑commerce sales in 2015 came from mobile commerce. Checkouts often require a certain time commitment because of their multi-step complexity. As a result, nearly half of users regularly move between devices when shopping because their device choice depends on the complexity of the task at hand.

How to Market to Multi-Device Users

What does this mean for marketers? It means you can’t assume you know what device users will be on when they visit your site. It may be dictated by what’s available to them, their current location (on the train, at home on the couch, etc.) or their ideal device preference based on the task they’re trying to accomplish. Marketing publications have had many headlines over the last couple years about how much mobile matters. But mobile isn’t king and the desktop isn’t dead.

Bottom line: Users aren’t thinking about what device they’re on, they just want to experience fluidity in every task they aim to complete. They need to have the flexibility to move back and forth between devices seamlessly. So, instead of thinking in terms of devices, we need to think in terms of tasks and interactions to build successful sites that are truly device agnostic.

Implementing a responsive design is a great first step because it is based on a fluid grid that eliminates the need for separate mobile or desktop experiences. Responsive design allows marketers to focus on interactions and content prioritization to better cater to the unique needs of users and tasks rather than specific device limitations.

But responsive design isn’t the only step. When creating responsive designs, we are often narrowly focused on how the design looks on certain devices (mobile, desktop, etc.). We create experiences with maximum widths that, on a connected TV for example, have huge empty white margins that could be used if we had considered dimensions beyond “desktop”. To think bigger we have to think smaller. Think about your site as an ecosystem of information and interactions that work in limitless ways — a collection of all the things your user needs to complete whatever task they may have.

Users’ multi-device worlds are only getting more complicated. Don’t put your eggs all in one device basket, because no single device rules the roost. Instead, let’s think outside the basket altogether.

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