Users Versus the Mobile / Desktop Divide

by John Albin Wilkins

From my count, there’s about 10 Internet-capable devices surrounding me in this coffee shop located in the Neihu District of Taipei; 6 laptops, a desktop, and a handful of iPhone and Android phones. There are only 7 people here though. Anecdotes like this show that mobile devices will soon outnumber desktops, and not just at DrupalCons and hipster coffee shops.

Web geeks love to dive into the numbers and start figuring out which devices have which version of which browser.

I frequently see questions like these posed:

  • Which devices should we support? iPhone? Android? Blackberry?
  • Which features do mobile users need compared to the desktop users?

Unfortunately, those are all the wrong questions.

How the desktop has ground us into an industry-wide rut

I've been developing websites since 1994 and in the intervening 17 years, our industry learned a lot about the technology of our craft. We've built up our websites from the simple OMGImageMaps! roots through the table-based faux-renaisance to the CSS-is-king crowning and on into our current post-IE6 industrial age.

But too many of the sites we build now are more concerned with engaging the user by any means necessary than with engaging the user with content and appropriate experiences.

They have literally become SEO-packed, monetized, click-harvesting forced games of "Where's Waldo?" Take a look at a typical page on the Huffington Post for a piece of video content; see how quickly you can find the video.

The Huffington Post

It's painfully obvious that we can't deliver that much superfluous "content" to mobile devices; they would be lost in a sea of words and drown under the weight of excessive bandwidth usage.

And what we thought we knew about A Grade browser support means nothing when there are new mobile devices released every month. In the past two years there have been 7 different versions of the Android OS released alone.

We can't carry on thinking "What browsers/devices do we support?" We've already lost the battle. You could come up with a definitive list of "A Grade" mobile devices, but it's futile. Is iOS the top mobile platform? What about now after Android's Honeycomb OS? And what about after iPhone 5's release?

We must stop thinking about what browsers or devices and start thinking in terms of device capabilities. Tools like the WURFL can help.

By focusing on capabilities, we can reach the widest set of devices without killing ourselves in a self-imposed support hell.

And it's equally important to stop thinking about delivering limited capabilities to mobile devices because you think you know what "mobile users" want.

I love using GMail on my iPhone. And it drives me batty that I can't easily create a filter without clicking on that "Desktop version" link first.

What is the mobile experience?

If you think you can know a user's expectations and constraints based on their browsing device, then you have fallen sway to the mass delusion that much of the web development community is under.

Jeremy Keith explained the mythical mobile context better than anyone. (I highly recommend you read his full article.)

"Someone visits your site with a mobile device therefore they are in a rush, walking down the street, hurriedly trying to find your phone number!"

Really?

The data does not support this. All those people with mobile devices […] sitting in a cafe or lounging on the sofa at home; they are all in a very different context to the imaginary persona of the mobile user rushing hither and thither.

Dividing our users into desktop vs. mobile camps is to fundamentally misunderstand our users.

The new "mobile experiences" we should be delivering are the same experiences that we should already be delivering to all our users.

So where do we go from here?

The explosion of mobile device usage is a giant wakeup call for our entire industry. The mobile device revolution is already underway. Palantir has ventured into the mobile sphere with its Drupalcon Chicago apps and its first-generation mobile support on the Palantir.net website. Our Front End Developers have regular meetings to plan our mobile strategy and there's an extreme level of excitement from every themer and designer in the company.

And, while we do have lots to learn about delivering similar experiences to a range of device sizes and capabilities, the first question we must always remember to ask is:

"What do our users need?"

Everything else flows from there.

Comments

John, great post! I love that you focus on the motivations here. I like to think that we should ignore what people say and focus on what they do. Then ignore what they do and focus on why they do it.

The answer is "The content of your website".

Whatever route that users take to get to your website, and whatever device they're viewing it on, they are at your website for your content. Nothing more, nothing less.

If your website is, like the HP pictured above, a news and articles site, then they are there to read your news and articles. That should be promoted first and foremost, because that's what your site does.

If your website is drupal.org, there's a LOT of possible content that they might be there for, because drupal.org has downloads and issue queues and documentation and forums.

If your website is a retailer, your content is information about your store. What you sell, how to purchase what you sell. More or less, it's a guideline on how to interact with you. If you sell things online, then it's a catalog and shopping cart. If you sell things in person for real money, such as a restaurant, then it's telling the viewer what you sell (a menu), how to get there (directions, phone number) and how to interact with you (reservations, dress codes, etc).

These principles apply to all websites on all platforms.

I'm a big believer in KISS Keep It Simple Stupid. We don't need to have all these ads and gadgets on a page when all the user is really interested in is seeing the content. A simple design where users can easily access the information they are looking for works best by far.

Ok, I have nothing against someone placing an ad on their site (after all they put in the work to create it they should be rewarded) but at the same time we have to remember that the content comes first and everything else is second.