Friday, February 20, 2009

How can we do better? Mobile web is just like desktop web from 1998 - Nielsen

Jakob Nielsen, often considered one of the world's leading thinkers on usability, has discussed the mobile web in his latest Alertbox monthly update, equalling the state of mobile websites today as similar to the state of the desktop internet in 1998.

I tend to agree that for many organisations this is the case, with Nielsen's comments all hitting close to the mark - abysmal success rates in users achieving their goals, pages requiring too long to download and featuring too much bloat, code crashes and excessive scrolling.

I've blogged previously about the need for government to begin more seriously considering and positioning for the importance of mobile sites. The growth of larger screen (and touchscreen) smartphones has finally turned mobile devices into an acceptable platform for web browsing.

A major point Nielsen raised was that many mobile sites are still being designed like desktop sites, just as in 1998 when websites were being designed like print brochures (ala brochureware).

This is a trend I've discussed previously - each new medium is first defined in terms of the paradigm of the last.

For instance, when television was introduced, programs were first structured like radio shows, and further back when movies were introduced they were structured like stage shows. The initial radio programs often consisted of an announcer reading the local newspaper on air.

It takes some time for society to begin to understand the true value of a medium and look on it as a new and distinct form, rather than as an extension of an older form.

This causes me to reflect on what the mobile medium will eventually become. Defining it in terms of a 'mobile internet' may be too limiting, too caught in the desktop internet paradigm.

Mobile devices have their own characteristics, strengths and weaknesses. For a government organisation - or any organisation to use these to best advantage, they must look at the specifics of the platform, not simply port their website to mobile (as they ported their publications to online).

Some of the obvious strengths of mobile include;
geo-location - it knows where you are
interaction time - people interact with mobile devices 24/7, whereas desktops require a conscious action
voice integration - voice communications can be embedded easily into the platform
photo and video capture - people can take photos and video anywhere, all the time

Some of the obvious disadvantages include;
Small screen size - makes displaying complex information more difficult
Short interactions - people make many more interactions with mobile devices, but most are only a few minutes in duration. Try concentrating on a mobile screen for an hour
reception quality - can vary enormously, making some online-only applications less usable
small keyboards - makes sustained typing more difficult
Many different platforms - there's less uniformity of screen size and internet capability (including cost of access) than on desktops, where there are a few dominant players

When developing a mobile site taking these factors into consideration will help your organisation develop more than a simple mobile port of your website, but a custom experience that helps people complete the different types of tasks they wish to complete on a mobile device.

So when you get your senior management across the line on having a mobile version of your website, ensure you also take them on the journey to understand that a simple reformat of existing content, navigation and functionality probably will not deliver the best result for your customers and stakeholders.

There's an opportunity to step beyond the desktop paradigm and deliver a mobile experience with real value. I challenge you to take it!

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