If your site does any of these things, make a mobile version

Web usability expert Jakob Nielsen is admittedly “bullish” on the mobile web. But his recent post bemoans how lacking most web sites are when viewed on mobile devices. For most sites, his prescription isn’t a web design overhaul. Instead, he recommends creating a separate version specifically for the lowest common denominator mobile browser.

To be more precise, he recommends that only if your site is frequented by cell phones and smart phones should you make this investment. “Not all sites need mobile versions,” says Nielsen. “According to a diary study we conducted with users in 6 countries, people use their phones for a fairly narrow range of activities.

“So, because many mainstream websites won’t see a lot of mobile users, they should just adapt their basic design to avoid the worst pitfalls for those few mobile users they’ll get.”

Narrow Range of Activities

So, you may wonder: What is this “narrow range” of activities? The following list is a good summary. These happen to be the “behaviors users engage in when using mobile devices,” as described in the upcoming Usability Week 2009 Conference(s), presented by the Nielsen Norman Group and presented by Raluca Budiu in full-day tutorials.

The course description lists these activities. If your site has users doing any of these 11 activities, seriously consider designing or upgrading a mobile version for your site:

  1. Navigation to websites on mobile devices
    • Search
    • Portals
    • Bookmarks
    • Direct access
  2. Browsing for news, entertainment, sports
  3. Finding specific information (weather, movie times, etc.)
  4. Transactions (such as online banking and other financial operations)
  5. Using maps and location information
  6. Integrating e-mail and contact information with browsing and fact-finding
  7. Content management (ringtones, photos, etc.)
  8. Monitoring and communication
    • E-mail
    • Instant messaging
    • Online communities
    • Social networks
    • Discussion groups
    • And more
  9. Shopping
    • Finding information about a product
    • Comparing online and in-store costs
    • Purchasing
    • M-commerce
  10. Killing time
    • Video, music, and games
    • Accessing, choosing, and downloading content
  11. Accessing nutrition and health information

Far from a narrow range, that seems like a lot of functionality! In Nielen’s Utopia, we’d all be doing most of our work and online recreation from our phones. It seems more like science fiction than a glimpse of things to come.

So why exactly is Nielen so bullish on mobile? Here’s an excerpt of his reasoning in today’s post:

Mobile is the trend of the year in application design. While trends can be wrong, lots of interesting things are happening.

We’re turning a corner in mobile Web usability. Just as Apple’s Macintosh heralded a breakthrough in personal computer usability 25 years ago, its iPhone is pioneering a similar breakthrough in mobile usability today.

The iPhone is certainly not perfect, and competitors could easily make better mobile devices. By “easily” I don’t mean over a weekend. I simply mean that it’s possible to do it given a strong focus on user experience and user-centered design [UCD]; iPhone leaves a lot of ground for improvement. So far, however, iPhone competitors have been disappointing because they haven’t been created with UCD.

He goes on to write that, whereas mobile browsers may improve over time, it is the user experience designed into mobile web sites that will lead the way in the short-term. He explains, “There is immense potential for advances in mobile usability as more website, intranet, and enterprise software designers build mobile versions and revamp their current designs for usability.

“The mainstream Web’s state in 1998 actually provides a hopeful precedent: just a year later, in 1999, interest in Web usability began to explode as Internet managers realized how chasing ‘cool’ rather than usable design yielded poor business results.”

Nielsen concludes by stating that he hope history repeats itself. As we marketing technologists struggle to deliver more value with every customer contact (in today’s economy more than ever!), I see this being likely to happen.

2 thoughts on “If your site does any of these things, make a mobile version”

  1. Hey Jeff,

    I got here via your Facebook post. I have to say, I think “the mobile web” as it stands now and as it is thought of based on the last decade or so is slightly overrated. Not in its future, but in its past.

    Here’s what I mean. There are two reasons:

    (1) The Mobile Web depends on the device itself, of which most pre-2007 were pathetic. As we begin to get better and better devices, the mobile web will change considerably, and thus creating a version of your site to fit the present mobile web will change. Take the Safari browser on the iPhone for example. Although I am not arguing against having a mobile version of a site, I do think that creating one for the past mobile web is a mistake.

    (2) Apps. As we’ve seen already in Quarter 1 of 2009, every mobile carrier and manufacturer is trying to be like Apple. We have all four spectrums of the mobile market (carriers, manufacturers, app creators, and 3rd party platforms) trying to create their own app store. From Verizon to Nokia to Google to Digital Media Interactive, you can now buy apps for your mobile device out there.

    What does this mean? Well, so many of the experiences we’d get trying to find the weather or a movie time on a mobile website will be supplanted by a much more useful and better designed application on the device. I know I don’t use Safari hardly ever on my iPhone — I strictly use apps.

    Couple the personal use of apps with the eventual professional (Salesforce apps on both iPhone and Blackberry for example), and any sort of external communication on future mobile devices I believe will be done through apps. (At least 90-95% would be my guess).

  2. Thanks, Kris —

    You’re certainly right about how inadequate most smartphones and cells are at rendering a web experience. Nielen actually groups them into three types, requiring three different web versions if you wanted to optimize for each.

    You’re also right that everyone is jumping on the app bandwagon. Just yesterday Yahoo announced their mobile portal.

    I’m just now sure that an app for every mobile task is the right solution, of a web interface will do the trick. It reminds me of the days when people thought the solution to lackluster desktop web experiences was developing in Flash. These complete Flash sites were attractive, but got in the way of people concerned with accessibility, plug-in independence and uniformity in GUI.

    It’s interesting to note that while the iPhone application industry is booming, so is the work of web interface developers to make iPhone Safari versions of web pages. Perhaps we’ll see things shake out the way the desktop web did, with a place for downloadable applications (such as my belowed Air app for interacting with Twitter, Twhirl) and smart web browser experiences.

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