UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 702 July 26, 2011

Why Mobile UX is More Than “Users On-The-Go”

It’s a common misconception that UX for mobile is all about creating something for users on-the-go—users with little time, checking in on their mobile on the train or at the bus stop waiting for a bus.

But today’s mobile user is so much more than that, with the rise in tablet usage further contributing to the growth and variety of their needs. No longer can UX practitioners expect to satisfy the mobile user with added pinch-and-zoom functionality or bigger call-to-action buttons; these things are expected, and don’t improve UX.

So as mobile use continues to grow in popularity and capability, how can we better appeal to a mobile audience?

Understanding the Audience

It makes sense to imagine that mobile users are busy, checking their phones when they have a spare minute, and that everything they do during their journeys will therefore be about quick wins and easy finds.

Yet have we not all, at some point, used our phone at home to browse the Web much like we would on a laptop? And with the evolution of mobile websites and apps creating far more practical and usable functions on the phone, is it beyond the realms of possibility that we might actually prefer to use our phone to perform a task or fulfil a need?

The mobile user is no longer limited, and mobile experiences are just as key as the desktop counterparts. Understanding how our users behave and how we might engage them is therefore imperative.

Understanding the Device

The most basic level of information UX practitioners need to bear in mind when designing for mobile is the functionality of the device on which they will work. Whether the phone is a touchscreen is the first question to consider, and it will require audience research to understand who’s using what. A Blackberry user, for example, will be using a mouse-style function and will thus respond well to hover states, whereas iPhones and many other smartphones don’t support such a function.

Speed is also a contributing factor in UX. From an SEO and UX perspective, a fast-loading page is far better than a slow one. This becomes even more important on mobile devices, where users are typically even less patient than they are on desktop computers. Many will conclude that a slow-performing site simply isn’t working, or that they don’t have the right level of connectivity. Pages that are too content-rich will download slower and use more memory, so ask yourself: “Is this really going to enhance the user’s experience?”

Longer Pages… Is More Better?

Whilst desktop websites are still trending toward multipage site structures, mobile is far more ready to embrace fewer, longer pages. The act of scrolling on a mobile is, for a lot of users, more intuitive and easier to do than on a desktop computer.

But this doesn’t mean every piece of content should be condensed onto one static page. This could be overwhelming for users and actually be detrimental to their experiences. Instead, consider how best to structure content to present it in a manageable, engaging way, utilizing functionality such as drop-downs or accordion panels to make content easily available but not necessarily immediately in view.

What Nielsen Says

Ed. (7/26/11 1705 GMT): Changes made to this section in response to Jakob's comment on 7/25.

Jakob Nielsen has long been at the forefront of information architecture innovation, and his interaction elasticity theory (December 2008) is arguably his most influential in terms of mobile journey design.

Nielsen's theory states that UX is optimized by clear, easy-to-follow journeys. An easy three-step flow is preferable to an easy five-step flow, but a longer journey is far preferable where shortening it causes confusion or complexity. UX practitioners in recent times have put less emphasis on this guideline because Internet users have become more comfortable with longer site navigation, but because of factors such as longer load times, sticking to Nielsen’s theory is a smart move for those designing mobile UX. Keep journeys short and focused to allow users to reach information quickly and easily; anything less and they’re going to go elsewhere.

Stripping Back Is Not the Answer

A common misconception when architecting the UX for mobile is it needs to be a ”stripped back” version of the desktop web page. Some practitioners take content back to its bare bones, removing “nonessential” images, videos, text blocks, graphics, and so on, to leave just the “essential” stuff.

An example of this is the refactoring of Wordpress sites for mobile. The standard Wordpress mobile plugin removes all multimedia content and instead provides a long list of articles for the user to click on. Whilst this is clearly a very usable version of the site, is it providing the user experience the user deserves?

Much of the content we provide to users, though not essential to their journey, adds to the experience because it gives content and visual diversity. That means videos, images, and other media should be included; it’s just that use of screen real estate and page layouts require additional, careful thought and design.

The Future of Mobile

There are better ways to engage the mobile user, ways that do not differ greatly from the methods we follow on the traditional web. Far from simply labelling the mobile user a “user-on-the-go,” UX practitioners should afford the mobile user the same level of diligence as they do for desktop experiences.

And as the understanding of the mobile audience continues to grow, so does the technology and functionality around it. Recent updates to JQuery, which offer far more flexibility for a more native-app-like experience, provide an excellent example of how development on mobiles is evolving (take a look at Google’s mobile homepage for examples of this in practice). Many developers are already suggesting that the uptake of HTML5 and the implementation of the canvas tag on mobiles will also enhance experience by allowing more adaptability and faster speeds.

Mobile isn’t a fad. It’s here to stay and it’s continuing to grow. But its staggering popularity shouldn’t lead us to rest on our laurels; we’ve now moved past the “I’ll use mobile because it’s cool” user to the mobile savvy, technologically aware users who won’t settle for a bad experience on mobile anymore than they would on their laptops or PCs. As UX practitioners, it’s our responsibility to ensure they get great experiences.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

User Profile

Laura Hampton heads up Content Engagement and Digital Marketing at user experience agency Zabisco. Having worked in the sector for a number of years, Laura draws on her own expertise as well as that of her colleagues to provide comment and content on all things user-centred, from IA and UI to the growing use of mobile and the essentials of UX design.

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Comments

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Hello,

As previous comments note, there are strong reasons for “stripping back” a website, contextually as well as task related. “Stripping back” isn’t really a proper term unless the agenda is to sell services. As a mobile experience designer, I say that most of my job is arguing for simplicity, the actual designs take very little time.

Why? Because I look at a sites visitors and numbers. It tells me quite accurately what people are doing, and sometimes why. Feedback tells me what they want to see, and the problems they are having. Testing tells me if the new designs accomplish the goals. I work with business to establish simple, measurable objectives. I know from current limitations what people do, and why. Do they surf on there phones? No.

So designing a “stripped down” website is exactly what I advocate. I can tell you why. I can give you numbers in support of this agenda if I could share them. From a business perspective, this approach has been wildly positive. It is a mobile perspective, and mobile is different from the general web in my opinion. I am designing behavior not websites.

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In terms of giving a helping hand in seeing that mobile is more that users on-the-go, Google did a pretty good job back in 2007 when they proposed 3 main mobile mindsets. (I cannot for the life of me remember the person's name... original reference was Google though).

The 3 mobile mindsets:
1. I'm bored (e.g. waiting/queuing, second or dual screen usage while watching TV, eating alone, etc.)
2. I'm local (e.g. where's my nearest, what's the address of X, any gigs/concerts in this area?, etc.)
3. I'm microtasking (e.g. need to check work email, what's my bank account balance?, check job status, etc.)

These can apply equally to tabletform or handform devices.

I think they cover 99% of what goes on. (there's an additional one, but orthogonal - "I'm in a ***** rush, give it to me right now" - and can apply to 2 & 3. Assuming that bored people aren't in a rush...)

What the article says about designing for the target devices and iffy data connections holds true. Though minimum steps & scrolling have long been points of confusion - due to misquoting and lack of attention to context.

Regarding stripping back - it depends. It really does - there is no one answer as the article says. Stripping back works if you're in a rush, on a bad connection, and microtasking. Stripping back doesn't work if bored and on a wide connection. how about giving the user the choice? Good sites default to mobile version, but have a link to allow the fuller/richer version to be accessed. Responsive design is another option here, but the user should still have a choice. (there's a good cartoon about this - the designer creates a mobile version only for iphone users to complain that they can't access the full site...). HTML5 allows local caching, and you can get your developer to use data more effectively (e.g. use GET headers to ask if content has been modified and only return if data has been modifed etc.)

And, one last thing. Designing for devices - how many are now actually questioning what devices users are actually using? Beyond the smartphone? it's possible to use J2ME and get onto the so called 'dumb' phones. The article mentions blackberry which is a massive step forward in terms of the "mobile = iphone" mentality, but doesn't go far enough.

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Many thanks for the comments everyone.

Jonti: Your project sounds really interesting and I agree that it is certainly an important observation that people will use mobile devices for far more than a 'quick check-in' - as you say, working on a mobile device is one of the more complex ways people may make use of this medium and it is key that UX practitioners incorporate these elements into their personas and journeys.

Chris: It is a good point you make, and an easy trap to fall into. Of course, giving people a link back to the full site via mobile is still important, but far more so is the need to create a rich mobile experience which isn't simply about stripping back the original content.

Jakob: My apologies for the error in reference and many thanks for submitting corrections for me. I have made the necessary amends to the article and these should be live soon.

Really enjoyed your piece on the WSJ app - it is surprising to see that even a market leading company can fail so substantially in their mobile experience and clearly a move into the mobile arena is not one to be taken lightly. Fully architecting and considering a mobile app is as important as it is on a 'desktop' website and hopefully that becomes more clear from your assessment of it.

Many thanks everybody and I look forward to more comments from you!

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Please note that the "3-click rule" is not one of my recommendations. In fact, the link you provide for this rule goes to a page that credits Jeffrey Zeldman.

Many times I have pointed out that what matters is the total amount of user struggle to arrive at the destination, not the count of steps. If something can be broken down into one step more but then each step is much clearer, than this is a preferable design to one with fewer steps that are all confused.

Here's one example of where I wrote about this:
http://www.useit.com/alertbox/interaction-elasticity.html

Now, you're right that the speed of going to the next step plays a role in resolving the tradeoff between different options. See, for example:
http://www.useit.com/alertbox/mobile-startup-screen.html

52
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Interesting - I use my "mobile devices" much more than my main computers, of course I'm not a typical demographic, but never occurred to me that I design for mobile the same way other places do in that frustrating just-give-me-the-normal-site-already way :)

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Really interesting post. Considering the way in which people use mobile devices and mobile connectivity while providing a high quality 'enriched' experience is something I would agree should be at the core.

This subject actually ties in very well with a piece I'm doing about mobile connectivity changing the way we behave in and use public spaces. A mobile user on a tablet device, working outdoors in a public park for example, would almost certainly require something better than an "on-the-go" experience - especially if they're sharing this information with other users, either in person or from device to device.