Nielsen vs Clark – they're both wrong

The other week web pioneer Jakob Nielsen made waves by suggesting web developers:

  • Build a separate mobile-optimised site if you can afford it.
  • Cut features to eliminate things that are not core to the mobile use case.
  • Cut content to reduce word count and defer secondary information to secondary pages.

This led to a big backlash from the responsive design camp. Josh Clark replied:

"Nielsen's 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.”

Clark goes on to say:

“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.’”

And folks like John Gruber, author of the popular weblog Daring Fireball, agree with Clark "wholeheartedly".

Extreme approach

Sure, these one-sided perspectives attract headlines, but both sides are a little extreme.

For example Clark's assertion that stripping out content from a mobile website is like a book author stripping out chapters from a paperback. This is a bad metaphor for two reasons. The first reason this is a bad metaphor is because publishers do just this. They're called Cliff's Notes and quite often in college bookstores they are the first thing that users/customers see, forcing them to dig deeper for the full text.

The second reason that this is a bad metaphor is because digital isn't print. If publishers could look at their "reader analytics" and see that 80 per cent of their paperback readers only read chapter 3, wouldn't it make sense to create a book to meets those needs?

I think Nielsen's point, as heavy-handed as it might come across, is trying to get at the idea that user patterns and analytics are what should inform your technology choices. Not best practices. Not newest technology, but user statistics. Data. Facts.

As an author and blogger, Clark lives in a world where the words are the reason people visit him. They want to read the words he crafted in the order he crafted them. They're not looking for a phone number. Or driving directions. Or checking their GPA. Or logging into webmail. Everyone who visits his site is a geek that knows how to use his product. His product is his words. There's no abstraction and everyone who visits him wants the same thing – to read his wisdom.

Clark says:

"Don't assume that the user wants abridged news, half a blog post, or half a book. And even if users wanted that, it would be an expensive and logistical nightmare to write every article or chapter twice."

He's right. Imagine if your favourite news sites only gave some content to mobile users. I bet you'd find a new favourite news site pretty darn quick.

But let's take another example which I think illustrates Nielsen's point very well.

Follow the stats

One of our clients is a bank. More than 50 per cent of their website visitors are on a mobile device. And 98 per cent of those users go directly to the online banking login. We could’ve created a responsive site, but instead we did what Nielsen recommends, and directed mobile users to a custom site which has:

  • Easy online banking login.
  • Advertising space for this clearly defined market segment.
  • A link to the main (non-mobile) site.

Another client of ours is a college. Analytics for their site indicated that almost all mobile traffic was on-campus students going to a few specific pages. We built custom navigation for the mobile site because analytics definitively showed mobile users were using their website differently than on-campus desktop users.

Nielsen seems say: "We looked at hundreds of mobile experiences and came to the conclusion that if you have the budget you should always create a mobile-only site, which has scaled back content."

And Clark’s response seems to be: "Are you crazy? Every site should always be responsive, don't ever try to presume to understand what users want."

In my opinion, they're both wrong. They’ve both fallen into the trap of thinking that the “right technology” will “solve your problems.”

The truth is when working on mobile you should always look at the site analytics and make smart decisions based on what you find. If you find that your mobile users use the site in a significantly different way than desktop users, check out Nielsen's guidelines and see which apply to you. And if you find that your mobile users are accessing the same content as desktop users then consider a responsive design.

Agree? Disagree? Shout out below.

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