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mobile website usabilityThe mobile user experience on most websites, even when accessed on the best devices, leaves a lot to be desired, and companies need to optimise their sites for the small screen.

This is usability guru Jakob Nielsen's verdict in his latest Alertbox column, and having accessed a lot of websites on mobile recently, it's hard to disagree with this point of view.

In the article, he compares the state of mobile usability to that experienced by desktop web users back in 1998, with users in his tests failing more times than they succeeded when performing tasks on websites accessed via mobiles.

Among the major mobile usability issues identified were:

Slow load times - Most pages take too long to load, especially on non-3G phones, but even iPhones and Blackberries deliver slower browsing than the average PC. This means that users are often reluctant to request additional pages.

Too much scrolling - Small mobile screens make for much scrolling and increases the chance that users miss things on websites. 

Bloated pages - big pictures, long pages etc. All cause issues for mobile internet users.

Javascript crashes - many rich media features and videos cannot work on mobile. For instance, I cannot view any videos on the BBC from my iPhone.

While full screen phones like the iPhone offer better mobile internet browsing, even they offer what Nielsen calls 'impoverished usability', and can only be used satisfactorily to perform relatively simple tasks.

So what does Nielsen recommend?

The answer, of course, is for websites to produce dedicated versions of their sites for mobile, as well as optimising for different mobile devices. Even better than this, producing dedicated apps for devices like the iPhone, as some sites have already done successfully.

Nielsen recommends this for the 'biggest and richest sites', though I think websites need to look at their audience and decide whether or not they need these apps. For instance, FT.com has released a mobile site optimised for such devices, and plans to develop apps on top of this, having looked at its mobile internet users and seeing that 60% had either Blackberries or iPhones. 

For 'moderately rich sites', two mobile versions are recommended; one for low-end phones, the other for smartphones. Basic phones need a stripped-down basic version, while iPhones and similar require a less basic but still simplified version.

Take a look at Amazon's mobile site for a good example of this. Here's the standard version on an iPhone screen, it takes time to load and needs a lot of zooming and scrolling to use, even if the layout is familiar:

Amazon website on mobile

The mobile version, optimised for iPhones, provides a much simpler user experince, while still retaining many of the best features of the standard website, and you can even buy from it:

Amazon iPhone site

Some websites may never attract a significant enough mobile internet audience to make a investment in mobile websites worthwhile, so Nielsen suggests either a single mobile website that is an simple to use as possible, or to simply not bother. Websites will need to look at their audiences and consider whether they need a mobile site. 

Certainly, most e-commerce sites, and those that are potentially useful to people on the move, like travel and news websites, should be working on improving their mobile offerings.

Graham Charlton

Published 17 February, 2009 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is the former Editor-in-Chief at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin or Google+

2565 more posts from this author

Comments (5)


Helen Gräwert (Baker), Freelance web writer at Concise Content

Hi Graham,

This is an interesting topic and one which (I think) will receive greater focus this year. As a copywriter (not a designer), this interests me because mobile sites call for even clearer, more succinct text than websites.

As for having a site or 'not bothering', I think companies should invest a small amount of money in a single, simple website. As a percentage of the overall cost of a business's online communications, I would have thought it would be minimal (I'm thinking in terms of corporate sites, not e-commerce sites).

For corporate sites, while their mobile internet audience might be minimal, they shouldn't be ignored. Especially those stakeholders who require immediate, business-critical information on their Blackberry or iPhone, such as investors.

I'm not sure many exist, but one example that's been around for a while is Rolls-Royce's mobile site for investors: http://www.rolls-royce.mobi/


over 7 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

Hi Helen, 

Thanks for your comments. I think you make a good point about corporate sites, though I know of some that need to improve the usability of their main website before even thinking about mobile.

over 7 years ago



You just don't know who's browsing your site on a mobile phone. I use Opera Mini on my k800i. I had tried to post a comment on this blog post just now but  failed: there's no comment section.

Mobile sites should offer users choice: give me the full site with full functionality but also allow me to choose the toned-down version.

And please stop using Captcha; it's just damn irritating.

over 7 years ago



Check out trekkertime.com. It's pretty sweet if you like traveling.

about 7 years ago


Mobile Monopoly Reviews

Investing for mobile marketing seems to be a good idea for businesses and corporate websites. Businesses should also consider creating dedicated versions of their sites for different mobile devices and web platforms - it may take some time and money but it's really part of the business industry.

about 6 years ago

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