Nielsen is wrong on mobile

For all of Jakob Nielsen's many great contributions to web usability over the years, his advice for mobile is just 180-degrees backward. His latest guidelines perpetuate several stubborn mobile myths that have led too many to create 'lite' mobile experiences that patronise users, undermine business goals, and soak up design and tech resources.

The notion that you should create a separate, stripped-down version for 'the mobile use case' might be appropriate if such a clean mobile use case existed, but it doesn't.

First, a growing number of people are using mobile as the only way they access the web. A pair of studies late last year from Pew and from On Device Research showed that over 25 per cent of people in the US who browse the web on smartphones almost never use any other platform. That's north of 11 per cent of adults in the US, or about 25million people, who only see the web on small screens. There's a digital-divide issue here. People who can afford only one screen or internet connection are choosing the phone. If you want to reach them at all, you have to reach them on mobile. We can't settle for serving such a huge audience a stripped-down experience or force them to swim through a desktop layout in a small screen.

Also, 'the mobile use case' doesn't exist as neatly as Nielsen suggests. There's a persistent myth that mobile users are always distracted, on the go, 'info snacking' in sessions of 10 seconds. That's certainly part of the mobile experience, but not the whole story.

Long sessions

Mobile isn't just 'mobile'. It's also the couch, the kitchen, the three-hour layover, all places where we have time and attention to spare. 42 per cent of mobile users say they use it for entertainment when they're bored. Those aren't 10-second sessions. That means we shouldn't design only for stunted sessions or limited use cases.

Nielsen is confusing device context with user intent. All that we can really know about mobile users is that they're on a small screen, and we can't divine user intent from that. Just because I'm on a small screen doesn't mean I'm interested in less content or want to do less.

Stripping out content from a mobile website is like a book author stripping out chapters from a paperback just because it's smaller. We use our phones for everything now; there's no such thing as "this is mobile content, and this is not."

We've all had the experience of going to a website on our phones and getting bumped to the mobile version. It looks great except, wait a minute, they've removed the exact feature or piece of content that I'm looking for. You know the drill: swipe-swipe-swipe, there it is: the "full desktop site" link. And then suddenly you're swimming in this giant design that undoes all the clever thinking that went into the original mobile layout. This is frustrating, it's wasteful of network bandwidth, and it suggests that the business doesn't care about that content.

When you see a "full desktop site" link on your phone, you're looking at an admission of failure.

Nielsen suggests that for users who want content that doesn't appear on the mobile website, you should just offer links to the 'full site', by which he means a desktop layout. We all know from our own consumer experiences what a crummy experience that is. Let's not forget that as designers.

The breakdown here is identifying the 'full site' as a desktop site. We should start with the ideal that all platforms are equal and that all content should be available in a way that is formatted appropriately for whatever device the consumer uses.

The answer is not building a separate website for every platform. That might've been fine when a new platform arrived every few years. But now that they seem to arrive every few weeks, that strategy is untenable. There aren't enough of us to support and design a fresh website for mobile, for tablets (for 7" and for 10" tablets), for television and for speech-based interfaces that are around the corner.

It's a content-strategy nightmare and a voracious resource hog to build and support separate websites for each and every platform, for each and every screen size, for each and every input style (touch, speech, text and so on).

Uniform experience

His suggestion that there should be a distinction between desktop and mobile website URLs is damaging, too. Any piece of content should have one address on the web, not several. When I'm on a phone, that content should be formatted appropriately for the small screen, and when I'm on a tv-based browser, it should be formatted appropriate for the giant screen. But the URL – the 'uniform resource locator' – should be uniform across devices, one place to go no matter what I'm using to browse.

Nielsen says his research is based on studies of hundreds of mobile experiences, and I don't doubt it. But because he's finding tons of poor mobile websites doesn't mean we should punt on creating great, full-featured mobile experiences.

Look, it's hard to build a great mobile experience with complete content and features. It takes careful thought and planning. But the obligation of design leaders is not to say, "don't bother." It's to provide guidance on how to do it well. Responsive design, adaptive design, progressive enhancement, and progressive disclosure give us the technical tools we need to create a single website that works well on all sites. We're still learning to use those tools the right way. Just because it's a design challenge to use them correctly doesn't mean we shouldn't strive to do it right.

Mobile isn't less. In fact, I think the real question is often, "how can I do more on mobile?" Because these devices, despite their smaller size, can do more than desktop. They're full of sensor superpowers. In many cases, there are opportunities to add content and features to mobile experiences, rather than strip them away. The ideal that we should all start with is that we should build a single website and then gradually enhance the experience to adapt to the capabilities of the specific device.

With more mobile phones being sold than PCs, with a growing number of people using phones as their exclusive web client, the idea that we should treat the desktop as the 'real' website is simply becoming quaint.

For more on the controversy, check out our news report and Nielsen's response.

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