Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Mobile Web 2009 = Desktop Web 1998

Mobile sites need specialized webpage design ...

"Mobile phone users struggle mightily to use websites, even on high-end devices. To solve the problems, websites should provide special mobile versions.

I recently sat through many sessions in which usability test participants attempted to use websites on their mobile phones. What a cringeworthy experience — for both users and researchers. In terms of the user experience quality we observed, it was like stepping into a time machine for a quick trip back to 1998. The similarities were numerous:

* Abysmal success rates. I don't want to publish specific numbers until we've completed our next round of testing in London. But in the U.S. sessions, users failed more often than they succeeded when using their mobiles to perform tasks on websites.
* Download times dominate the user experience. Most pages take far too long to load, particularly on non-3G phones. But even the highest-end phones deliver much slower browsing than a desktop computer. As a result, users are reluctant to request additional pages and they easily give up.
* Scrolling causes major usability problems. In contrast to the 1990s, the problem is not that users don't scroll — it's that they scroll too much. On mobiles, they have to move their minuscule peephole back and forth so often that they lose track of both where they are and what's on the page. Often, they scroll right past something without noticing it. The effect of the reduced viewable area on users is strongly reminiscent of usability issues we found in tests with low-vision users. Using a mobile makes you a disabled user, and we all know that most sites ignore accessibility.
* Bloated pages hurt users. Most of the sites we studied wouldn't seem bloated on today's upsized PC monitors, but when rendered on a mobile they fairly explode with bloat. Users are frequently stumped by big images or by long pages that bury the items they want to see.
* Unfamiliarity with a browser's user interface limits the user's options. People use their devices suboptimally because they don't understand the UI. Desktop browsers are fairly stable, with few major changes between releases (tabbed browsing is probably the only one in the last decade). In contrast, many people get new mobile devices every two years, and the various models have vastly different browsing experiences. This fact also limits a user's ability to learn from observing friends and colleagues, who may have different phones.
* JavaScript crashes and problems with advanced media types, such as video. Keep it simple, folks — particularly if you want something to work on a broad range of phones.
* Reluctance to use websites on the mobile for many tasks, especially true of shopping. According to our participants, m-commerce has a dark future unless sites improve and earn users' trust.
* Search dominance. Okay, this is more prominent today than in 1998, but it was there, and it's certainly strong in mobile use.
* Old-media design. In the 1990s, many site designs mimicked good-looking print publications and offered weak interaction support. Today, sites are designed as, well, websites. More specifically, they're designed as desktop websites, and that's the wrong media form for mobile use; even on the best phones, driving the interaction is painful and simple designs are a must.

Usability Varies by Mobile Device Category
Our testing found 3 distinct classes of mobile user experience, which are mainly defined by screen size:

1. Regular cellphones with a tiny screen. Often called feature phones, these devices account for the vast majority of the market (at least 85% in some statistics). They offer horrible usability, enabling only minimal interaction with websites.
2. Smartphones, in a range of form factors, typically with a mid-sized screen and a full A-Z keypad. These devices sometimes feature 3G Internet connectivity and perhaps even WiFi. Smartphones offer bad usability, forcing users to struggle to complete website tasks.
3. Full-screen phones (mainly the iPhone) with a nearly device-sized touchscreen and a true GUI driven by direct manipulation and touch gestures. These phones offer 3G Internet connectivity and even faster speeds when connecting through WiFi. They also offer impoverished usability; only simple tasks are reasonably easy — and only then if users are on well-designed sites that are optimized for mobile."    (Continued via Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox)    [Usability Resources]

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