As smartphones and tablets grow in popularity, mobile optimization is something libraries and nonprofits should pay close attention to in the coming year. Responsive web design (also known as mobile optimization) refers to designing a site to provide an optimal viewing experience across a wide range of devices.

Student using phone in library

Why Mobile?

Why should mobile be part of libraries and nonprofits' game plan? Multiple studies have found that more people are accessing the web from a mobile device. Furthermore, smartphone sales skyrocketed last year while PC sales are expected to decline in 2013.

According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project Mobile Connections to Libraries study, 13 percent of patrons have visited a library website or accessed library services via a mobile device. This number has doubled from a Pew 2009 survey, which found that 6 percent of Americans 16 and older had used a mobile device to connect to a library site.

While this is a significant increase, 13 percent still seems pretty low given the surge in smartphone and tablet ownership. It begs the question: Why aren't more patrons accessing library sites on their mobile devices? The problem could be that many library websites are simply not designed with these devices in mind.

Responsive Web Design

Incorporating responsive web design into your overall website planning will give it a longer "shelf life" on the Internet. The idea is that a website can detect what device it is being viewed on and automatically render itself — regardless of whether it's being viewed on a 10-inch tablet or a 3.5-inch smartphone display.  

The speakers at The Chronicle of Philanthropy's Nonprofit Technology Forecast for 2013, held in January, all emphasized the importance of responsive design for nonprofits this year. 

"Responsive design is a natural companion to all the data about mobile devices increasing," said Amy Sample Ward, current membership director of NTEN and formerly of TechSoup Global.

Mashable calls 2013 the "year of responsive web." Mashable founder Pete Cashmore writes, "Given the rapid adoption of tablets and smartphones — and the fact that users currently seem to prefer reading their news on the mobile web rather than in apps — I think it's inevitable that 2013 will be the year that responsive design takes off."

Cashmore's point is that a responsive web design is the easiest way to reach an audience across multiple devices. For nonprofits, that means new donors or volunteers. For libraries, it is the most efficient way to reach patrons — regardless of how they're accessing the web.

What About Apps?    

Apps are still an important component in reaching and serving mobile audiences. However, apps can be expensive to develop, and if they aren't designed well, people will be less likely to use them. If your organization is determining your mobile strategy, your first priority should be ensuring that your website is optimized for mobile devices.

That said, a mobile app can be a great way to offer a service or resource that isn't part of your organization or library's website. For example, the Orange County Public Library's Shake It! app is a fun way to discover what's in the library's catalog.

More Resources on Mobile Optimization and Responsive Design

Whether you're just starting a mobile plan or launching your latest app, you can find a variety of resources from the TechSoup Global Network as well as other trusted nonprofit and library sites.

Image: Student Using Phone in Library, Shutterstock.

Ginny Mies is a Content Curator at TechSoup Global.