Mobile usability. Developing sites for all devices.

Mobile usability. Developing sites for all devices.

Mobile Usability

I also agree with Nielsen when he writes:

“When people access sites using mobile devices, their measured usability is much higher for mobile sites than for full sites.”

But from this he draws the wrong conclusion, that we should continue making special mobile websites. I believe that special mobile websites is like sticking plaster over the problem; we generally shouldn’t have separate mobile websites, anymore than we should have separate screen reader websites. The reason many “full websites” are unusable on mobile phones is because many full websites are unusable on any device. It’s often said that your expenditure rises as your income does, and that the amount of clutter you own expands to fill your house however many times you move to a bigger one. In the same way, website owners have long proved incontinent in keeping desktop websites focussed, simply because they have so much room. This is perfectly illustrated by the xkcd comic.

As I wrote on the website The Pastry Box on April 13th:

“The mobile pundits got it right: sites should be minimal, functional, with everything designed to help the user complete a task, and then go. But that doesn’t mean that you need to make a separate mobile site from your normal site. If your normal site isn’t minimal, functional, with everything designed to help the user complete a task, it’s time to rethink your whole site.

“And once you’ve done that, serve it to everyone, whatever the device.”

In a previous article, Nielsen wrote in September 2011 that he dropped testing usability with featurephones:

“Our first research found that feature phone usability is so miserable when accessing the Web that we recommend that most companies don’t bother supporting feature phones.

“Empirically, websites see very little traffic from feature phones, partly because people rarely go on the Web when their experience is so bad, and partly because the higher classes of phones have seen a dramatic uplift in market share since our earlier research.”

This is a highly westernized view. Many people can’t afford smartphones, so they use feature phones running proxy browsers (such as Opera Mini), which move the heavy lifting to servers. This is often the only way that underpowered featurephones can browse the Web. Statistics from Opera’s monthly State of the Mobile Web report (disclosure: Opera is my employer) shows that lower-end feature phones still dominate the market in Eastern Europe, Africa and other emerging economies—see the top 20 handsets worldwide for 2011 that accessed Opera Mini. Since February 2011, the number of unique users of Opera Mini has increased 78.17% and data traffic is up 142.79%.

A caveat about those statistics: not every user of Opera Mini is a featurephone user in developing countries. They’re widely used on high-end smartphones in the West, too, as we know that they are much faster than built-in browsers, and users really want speed.

Nielsen’s dismissal of feature phones reminds me of some attitudes to Web accessibility in the early 2000′s. His assertion that companies shouldn’t support feature phones because they see little traffic from feature phones is the classic accessibility chicken and egg situation: we don’t need to bother with making our website accessible, as no-one who visits us needs it. This is analogous to the owner of a restaurant that is up a flight of stairs saying he doesn’t need to add a wheelchair ramp as no-one with a wheelchair ever comes to his restaurant. It’s flawed logic.

Developing Usable Websites For All Devices

The W3C Mobile Web best practices say:

“One Web means making, as far as is reasonable, the same information and services available to users irrespective of the device they are using. However, it does not mean that exactly the same information is available in exactly the same representation across all devices. The context of mobile use, device capability variations, bandwidth issues and mobile network capabilities all affect the representation. Furthermore, some services and information are more suitable for and targeted at particular user contexts.”

There will always be edge cases when separate, mobile-specific websites will be a better user experience, but this shouldn’t be your default when approaching the mobile Web. For a maintainable, future-friendly development methodology, I recommend that your default approach to mobile be to design one website that can adapt to different devices with viewport, Media Queries and other technologies that are often buzzworded “Responsive Design.”

Combining these techniques in a smart way with progressive enhancement allows your content to be viewed on any device (and with richer experiences available on more sophisticated devices), with the possibility of accessing device APIs such as geolocation, or the shiny new getUserMedia for camera access.

Although many other resources are available, I’ve written “Mobile-friendly: The mobile web optimization guide” which you’ll hopefully find a useful starting point.

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