UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 562 September 28, 2010

Rethinking the Mobile Web

Sometimes, 2010 really reminds me of 1995—that mystical time when the Web was just starting to take off. I remember sitting with a friend randomly typing the name of the largest or most innovative companies we could think of into Netscape, just to see if they maybe had a website. The mobile Web today is a bit like that. Every once in a while you Google something and poof… a mobile site comes up. Unlike 1995, however, finding a mobile site is only half as much fun. All too often, the content isn't exactly what you were expecting. And more often than not, it's formatted for some other device.

So that's the user perspective, but how do designers and developers feel about the mobile Web?

For all the times users are perplexed by odd mobile experiences, I can guarantee developers, designers, and stakeholders are as well. Mobile browsers are pretty smart these days, so why not just serve the desktop site to everyone? But then again, there's that 'mobile context' thing. So maybe it's best to build a mobile site with mobile-specific functionality? That's no fun though, because now we have two sites, or maybe three, or even more. How do you tell these devices apart anyhow? Is that what these new @media query things are for? And let's be realistic: all we see on the subway are iPhones, so are users even browsing the Web on mobile at all?

The problem is that there is no single or correct answer to any of this, and there may not be for some time.

But what we do know after lots of testing and research is that millions of people are using the mobile Web on many devices with many screen sizes and using many browsers. Habits and patterns also vary dramatically around the world, which makes it even harder to figure out what to do. And current options such as device databases and user-agent sniffing are becoming less useful. There are simply too many devices out there to keep relying on huge white lists or seemingly random device groupings based on terminology that keeps changing (tablet, superphone, smartphone, featurephone, dumbphone… ?)

The presentation below is our attempt to provide some perspective on all this, and suggest techniques that address the wide range of users, devices, and browsers from the very start. This is by no means a solution to everyone's problems and, to be honest, we've been completely blown away by the interest these ideas have received so far. From Berlin, to Seoul, to Nairobi, we've struck a chord with people who create and manage Web-based digital stuff, including developers, educators, publishers, and even librarians. It's clear that many people want or need to support mobile but are uncertain how to do so.

So we'd love to hear from the UX community. Does the approach we recommend in the presentation, or any others you may be using, make sense to you? What tools, standards and resources are missing to address the problems you currently encounter when designing for the mobile Web?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

User Profile

Stephanie (@stephanierieger) is a designer and closet anthropologist with a passion for the many ways people interact with technology. With a diverse background, Stephanie's expertise lies in marrying design, technology and business goals to craft simple, elegant experiences. A compulsive researcher, Stephanie is always keen to discover and share insights on the mobile web and mobility trends in emerging economies.

User Profile

Bryan (@bryanrieger) is a designer, writer and reluctant developer with a background in theatre design and classical animation. Bryan has worked across various media including print, broadcast, web and mobile, and with clients such as Apple, Microsoft, Nokia and the Symbian Foundation. Most days, Bryan can be found designing and prototyping a diverse range of experiences, and every once in a while, he can also be found organising a Mobile Design UK event in London.

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Comments

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"Nevermind that the iPhone (and WebKit) basically created the category of near-desktop-class web experiences on smartphones. People have such short memories"

Load of rubbish. Apple users have (and still are) simply happy to purchase what everyone else uses (and expects) for free. That is why the open web is still around.

Near-desktop-class web experiences are certainly popular thanks to Apple, but there is a much bigger market (and likely will continue to be) that wants to play outside of a policed garden.

Diversity in devices might prove awkward for web developers and some devices might appear to answer all the problems with a policed solution, but the sheer diversity of what is already available in such a short space of time has certainly sparked real self-assessment of the future of the web for everyone.

Mobile apps, like their computer predicesors, are essentially produced (and used) in minority compared to the open web. And as more poorer people use such devices, this number will continue to increase. I personally don't see a future where everyone needs to purchase web apps, but I can certainly see how there is a rush for businesses to make money before the market drops out.

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@ryan; I also don't get it "all we see on the subway are iPhones.." but I guess if we replace iPhones with iPods... then the whole sentence make more sense.
I think google sensed this mobileweb standard issue way before anyone so they just decide to make the standard smartphone OS with android.
Apple stands with html5.
Yahoo is catching up with Yahoo blueprint.
Now Nokia find themselves lacking and takeover symbian.
Despite efforts by other mobileweb coding, the most possible leader would be the standard from above list.

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Very nice presentation about mobile browsing. Clear comparisons between mobile and desktop browsing. Very nice slides, like the photo's and humour in it!

Good point of laying the focus beyond the iDevice hype and concentrate on the real users of mobile browsing. Cause the fact that the software industry is moving around a couple of devices of a single manufacturer is not a desired situation. The penetration of mobile webapps will be slowed and the growth market (i.e. Africa) is neglected.

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"all we see on the subway are iPhones, so are users even browsing the Web on mobile at all?"

Not sure I understand this statement. Are you saying that you think iPhone users never open Safari, and only use downloaded apps? Or are you saying that because they're on the subway with no cell signal available, they must be doing something other than browsing the web?

It's funny to me that because Apple chose to open the iPhone up to native apps (which everyone begged them to do practically from the moment it was announced, complaining that Apple's suggestion solution of web apps wasn't good enough), and because they did so in a way that was smart and successful, some of the same folks are now running around wailing about how the iPhone is "killing" the open, HTML Internet. Nevermind that the iPhone (and WebKit) basically created the category of near-desktop-class web experiences on smartphones. People have such short memories...

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I don't care if people use the web on devices other than iPhones. If you use the web on a mobile device that is not a superphone, you should expect a crappy experience.

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Great article and super hot topic. But the questions are not really new and there has always been a large community of services and developers to try to fix this problem and simplify the process for developers and content providers AND brands. It started with 'browser compatibility' and ended up with 'cell phone device compatibility'.

I just recently gave a workshop on (digital) Adaptive Brand Experiences and tried to bring in a better and deeper understanding of brand user experience documentation which helps to build and establish a cohesive brand experience across several digital touch points and outlets.

Just skip the promo part and start with page 35+ "Your brand liquifies in a waterfall of new digital touch points."

ENJOY!

http://www.slideshare.net/MosBar/the-impact-of-brand-user-experience-design

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What if we ditch the web on mobiles for the web on some other remote platform i.e. a tablet? For example, you stick to using the phone for making calls and you use the tablet for surfing the internet?

Think about it another way. Many younger people don't wear a watch. They have their phone, which tells them the time (this is what they know). Remember when digital watches came out? It was all about the features (a calculator springs to mind!). Now watches just tell the time i.e. what they were designed to do.

It doesn't matter how good mobile website design gets, the size of the screen is too small to surf the net, which means it will ultimately be replaced with something bigger. Just like all a watch could really do was tell the time, a mobile phone is best used for making and receiving calls (and SMS) - because that's what it was designed for.

This is the reason that apps are more popular - the expectation is way lower.

I think that the presentation nails designing for mobile first, but in 5 - 10 years time how we interact with the mobile web will be completely different. I doubt it will be on screens the size of what we are currently on. Perhaps the next thing that sets the market on fire will be the phone that has a screen that opens up to be 7in wide.

Great presentation though. And some great images.

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On my desktop computer, the slideshow never shows up, the error code is 'Forbidden." Sigh..

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I think mobile web developers should also have a look at the W3C mobile web best practices. It also comes down to one question - what information the user needs on a mobile device? Keeping the data separate from presentation is going to help us deliver a better user experience.

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Ultimate irony isn't it? :-P These ideas were first presented at Over the Air, a conference in London a few weeks back--hence the presentation format. The ideas have proved very popular and sparked lots of discussion, so we're planning a follow-up article (that everyone will be able to read!) but haven't had time to put it together yet.

Unfortunately, while Slide Share does offer an iPhone compatible (i.e. HTML based) version on its site, the embed view that 3rd parties can use still relies Flash. Some devices (many Nokia smartphones and certain newer Androids for example) can play Flash just fine...but of course, Apple devices don't.

We're actually doing a bit of research at the moment on 3rd party tools for this very reason. So many of us now embed Flickr, Your Tube, Vimeo etc. into our blogs and sites. Many of these services are providing mobile alternative, but very few offer a mobile compatible embed for users. So even if your site supports mobile, you can end up with loads of inaccessible content.

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I'm on an ipad. I'm disappointed. I have to open my laptop to view this slide!

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I couldn't agree more, sitting on a long train ride home... A surprised to find a flash plugin on my iPhone

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Interesting that you chose to present your thoughts via a Flash player. Maybe a series of images - less than 140 - might have got your point across to a wider mobile audience.