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Using the web isn't easy on mobile devices, especially in the case of websites not designed for mobiles, according to usability studies from Jakob Nielsen.

According to Nielsen, mobile sites performed poorly in user testing, with the average success rate for tasks performed on mobiles just 59%, compared with 80% for regular websites.

The main problems are:

  • Small screens. Obvious really, but small screens mean that there are fewer visible options, making interactions on mobiles much more difficult.
  • Difficulty of data input. As with small screens, small keyboards make it harder to type, to scroll up and down web pages, and increases the possibility that mistakes will be made by users.
  • Slow download times. Variable connection speeds and quality means that loading uo web pages can take a long time. Nielsen compares this slowness to dial-up internet.

  • Sites not designed for mobiles. Since most websites are designed for desktop users, they can be harder to use on a mobile. 

The answer? Design sites especially for mobile users, and hope they are accessing them with touch screen devices.

When users in Nielsen's tests were accessing sites optimised for mobiles, the average task success rate was 64%, compared to 53% for standard websites. So, if your mobile strategy is important designing a website with mobile user in mind is the key.

There are some good examples of sites that have done this; both Amazon and FT.com have sites that have been optimised for mobiles, providing a usable site by stripping out some of the functionality of the main websites, and, in Amazon's case, streamlining the product search and checkout process.

The other issue here is to make mobile websites easier to find, something I have mentioned before. Automatically redirecting users to mobile versions of sites and providing clear links from desktop sites to the mobile versions will help users.

There are also clear differences in usability between different types of mobile phones. Touch screens, such as that on the iPhone, offer the best experience, followed by smartphones, while regular phones, which make up the majority, offer the poorest mobile internet experience for users.

The key is to work out the audience for your website before you decide which phones to optimise for. In the case of FT.com, it had a high percentage of users with Blackberries and iPhones, so the site is aimed at these devices, while an excellent iPhone app has also been released.

For other sites, a one-size fits all policy may be best, to provide the best user experience for as wide as audience as possible.

Graham Charlton

Published 21 July, 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 (4)

Avatar-blank-50x50

Vance Hedderel, PR Director, dotMobi

At dotMobi, we've been keen followers of Jakob Nielsen's work for a long time. Helping developers create mobile sites that will work on practically all handsets -- and overcome the hinderances to adoption that Nielsen discusses -- is the whole reason we created our free http://mobiForge.com forum as well as our free http://mobiThinking.com forum for marketers. 

Given the poor economics of app building for a big world of different handsets, broswer-based mobile sites will continue to blossom and thrive. Note this quote today from BBC News, "Google's engineering vice president Vic Gundotra told the conference that the application store trend is just a fad and that the focus will shift to powerful browsers as the main mechanism for delivering [mobile] services."

And dotMobi developed the .mobi domain to ensure that businesses have a uniform way to name -- and consumers have a uniform way to identify -- mobile Web sites.

If you want to see some businesses who are "doing mobile right," be sure to visit our showcase of hundreds of mobile sites at http://mobithinking.com/showcase.

about 7 years ago

Ed Stivala

Ed Stivala, Managing Director at n3w media

It seems fundamentally flawed to me to even start thinking abut accessing "websites" via browsers on mobile devices. Think about the audience and the transaction that they are likely to need / want to do. Surely from a usability and just plain common sense perspectives, content owners should be implementing native mobile apps.

The issue does not strike me as being about designing different website interfaces at all. I guess if you are a hammer then every problem needs to be a nail. So if you are a "web designer" that feels proud to have mastered HTML / CSS then I guess you would start by *assuming* that the web should be responsible for presentation services and that "browsers" are a good idea - always!

about 7 years ago

Avatar-blank-50x50

Air Jordan

It seems fundamentally flawed to me to even start thinking abut accessing "websites" via browsers on mobile devices. Think about the audience and the transaction that they are likely to need / want to do. Surely from a usability and just plain common sense perspectives, content owners should be implementing native mobile apps.

The issue does not strike me as being about designing different website interfaces at all. I guess if you are a hammer then every problem needs to be a nail. So if you are a "web designer" that feels proud to have mastered HTML / CSS then I guess you would start by *assuming* that the web should be responsible for presentation services and that "browsers" are a good idea - always!

almost 7 years ago

Avatar-blank-50x50

Roman Doroshenko

It would be interesting to read exactly about online store mobile website usability. Can't find anywhere :(

over 4 years ago

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