Nielsen’s Mobile vs. Full sites

Jacob Nielsen, a usability guru wrote a controversial set of guidelines covering mobile vs full site usability where he suggested that we should build separate versions of a website for each device.

Many respected designers responded negatively — to say the least — and while I have to agree that we shouldn’t build lighter mobile website versions, let’s go deeper and take into consideration the research results that were the foundation for Nielsen’s advice.

Yes, for many — especially the 3rd World, where education resources are limited anyway — the mobile site is the only site they’ll ever encounter and we must provide access by anyone regardless of devices they use. Yet, we are still in the experimental stage with mobile design and web design in general — that even an opposite opinion can be valuable to identify some broader challenges, for instance: Why the “full site” performance is so poor when accessed with a mobile device?

This is where Mobile First comes into play. By placing all useful content (i.e. everything but a cheesy marketing and superfluous decorations) into the mobile context, it’s easy to establish a corner-stone for any device experience. The real question is not “separate sites vs. universal site?”, it’s “which device should be covered first?” We already know the answer, right?

Creating different navigation systems and optimized experience across devices can be easily accomplished with some clever CSS and JavaScript, which is basically building on top of universal HTML layer. That doesn’t require a separate website and we know how to do it for several years now.

The one category where you’d probably have to create (user-friendlier) mobile / tablet version is news sites and blogs with advertising based revenue scheme, but that’s a story for another occasion.

Usability testing is for producers and clients

Usability testing, user research and analytics are essential design tools. However, over the years it became quite obvious that the true value of UI testing is not in the actual set of findings or usability experts’ recommendations, but in the switch happening in the heads of project team members.

Simply watching others struggling with your interface — and a number of users always will, no matter how good the interface is — forces you to think more about the general concept instead of the technical details. It brings up some fundamental questions about the project’s goals, the core feature set etc. Technical problems are important, but those are easily solved or avoided altogether once you identify them. The real trouble is when you miss the general concept.

Draw your own conclusions

Nielsen’s articles almost always offer an interpretation of the key findings. Still, use each finding as a mere recommendation instead of a comply-or-die rule. Use the numbers and facts presented — they are the most valuable take-away — and draw your own conclusions.

A few useful articles:

Marko Dugonjić is a designer specialized in user experience design, web typography and web standards. He runs a nanoscale user interface studio Creative Nights and organizes FFWD.PRO, a micro-conference and workshops for web professionals.

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