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.