It’s time we deliver great mobile web experiences

moonForty years after putting a human on the moon, we’re faced with the same question we had that day: Now what? My vote is not moon colonization, or sending people to Mars. No, let’s do something really challenging — but arguably far more beneficial. Let’s finally deliver stellar mobile web experience.

I’m proposing this in light of the new study that finds typical mobile web experiences excruciating. The user experience research firm Nielsen Norman Group reports today in their usability studies that the typical success rate for users completing tasks on the mobile Internet was just shy of 60 percent, compared to an average PC-based browser success rate of 80 percent.

Jakob Nielsen says of these findings: “The phrase ‘mobile usability’ is pretty much an oxymoron … [watching users] suffer during our user sessions reminded us of the very first usability studies we did with traditional websites in 1994.”

Improving mobile web experiences won’t be easy. But the returns in customer productivity and brand loyalty for businesses that hit the mark are huge.

How little do web users read? Even less than you think

Before you struggle too hard and long over that golden prose you’ve drafted for your web site, consider this statistic, as cited on Jakob Nielsen’s site last week:

On average, users [in the study discussed] will have time to read 28% of the words if they devote all of their time to reading. More realistically, users will read about 20% of the text on the average page.

The takeaway: Write as though your reader has one foot out the door and the other on a banana peel. Get to the point and then move on!

If Strunk and White worked in adjoining cubicles

My dusty but beloved writing stylebook by William Strunk and E.B. White urges the reader to use active voice, not passive voice. The AP Stylebook agrees, adding: Write in an inverted pyramid, with key information in the first sentences, and supporting but less vital facts trailing behind.

All of this conforms to how people consume information found in printed magazines and newspapers. Do these rules hold up to web reading habits?

According to web usability demigod Jakob Nielsen, the answer is yes and no.

Initially in his recent post, he asserts, “Active voice is best for most Web content.” But he concedes that the web has introduced a new concept to consider. It’s called the information scent.

This refers to “the extent to which users can predict what they will find if they pursue a certain path through a website.” He continues as follows:

Using passive voice can let you front-load important keywords in headings, blurbs, and lead sentences. This enhances scannability and SEO [search engine optimization] effectiveness.

It also breaks several sacrosanct rules of conventional writing.

Neilsen defends his points well. He says that users scan content so quickly that they “often read only the first 2 words of a paragraph.” [Emphasis mine.] Therefore, he contends, this summary statement is acceptable by all measures except scannability and SEO effectiveness:

Yahoo Finance follows all 13 design guidelines for tab controls, but usability suffers due to AJAX overkill and difficult customization.

To fix this, here is his proposed solution:

13 design guidelines for tab controls are all followed by Yahoo Finance, but usability suffers due to AJAX overkill and difficult customization.

Much better! Why, you ask? He explains it this way:

Because “13” is sufficiently short, users will likely fixate on the first 3 words, not just the first 2, when they initially scan the blurb. Also, numerals beat words when referring to specifics, so starting with “13” is even better at attracting the scanning eye.

I’m sure Mr. Strunk and Mr. White are spinning in their graves like a pair of synchronized swimmers. But in fairness, they never faced the challenge of an audience so awash in information. It’s a challenge that I, for one, find exciting. But I still will occasionally dip into this duo’s eloquent love letter to clear writing. I’ve probably reread it 20 times.

What’s more — and this is quite sincere:

I feel sorry for writers who did not fall in love with writing back when active voice reigned supreme.

Scratch that. How about:

Writers raised on passive voice, necessitated by information scents, are a target of my pity.