The 'Misery' Of The Mobile Web

When longtime Web design guru Jakob Nielsen released a report yesterday pronouncing the mobile Web experience "miserable," even a persistent critic like me got a little defensive when the phrase started making the rounds. Is the mobile Web really that bad? I thought most of us were embracing the platform at long last in the past year? The metrics I have seen lately peg monthly mobile Web use in the U.S. at 50 million to 60 million people. How bad could an experience be if so many of us repeat it on an ongoing basis?

I would recommend mobilistias bypass the press release around the Nielsen Norman Group $198 report and go instead to Nielsen's own notes on his Alertbox site.

As Nielsen outlines, the company tested in a number of countries and across scores of sites and handsets. Most of those involved in direct usability testing were in the U.S. and they were tasked with following some common quests on mobile.



In his most striking finding (to me, anyway) Nielsen found that usability may actually have degraded since he tested in 2000. Finding the local weather on a phone in 2000 took 164 seconds; in 2009, it took 247 seconds. He explains that current mobile users tend to be very search-centric, so when asked to perform a task on a handset they are defaulting to the most circuitous route, the mobile version of their preferred search engine. This process entails error-prone typing, which Nielsen correctly fingers as a persistent culprit in mobile usability. It is worth noting that the study had one iPhone user who performed the weather task in record time, 18 seconds. "If any additional evidence were needed for mobile-dedicated design's benefits, this example should surely suffice," says Nielsen.

The metric from this report that got repeated yesterday throughout the mediasphere was 59%, the relatively low success rate of users pursuing tasks on their phones. The team equates those results with usability of the Web in 1994. "It was that bad," Nielsen says on his site.

But to be more complete and fair to the mobile Web and to handset evolution, that success metric improved dramatically in direct proportion to the phone's power. While feature phones suffered an abysmal 38% success rate, smartphones leapt to a 55% success rate and touch phones had a 75% rate, which is almost on par with the 80% rates of the Web when accessed on a PC.

To my mind the most useful point in this survey of our "miserable" mobile Web is Nielsen's argument that designing specifically for mobile is the smartest way to go. For all of the hype around full-Web browsing on mobile devices, the survey found that the success rate among mobile sites averaged 64%, overall while the rate for full Web sites on handsets dropped to 53%.

Standard Web sites simply are not designed for easy interaction even on the better handsets. The researchers also found that general satisfaction was higher for mobile-specific deigns than for full Web sites on mobile screens. "If mobile use is important to your Internet strategy, it's smart to build a dedicated mobile site," says Nielsen.

Thank you! Over the years, I have gotten harangued by too many proponents of a unified Web, a vision of desktop browsers and mobile handsets all accessing the same sites, the same features, and the same advertising. As efficient as that may sound for publishers, marketers, and ad technology companies, I just don't buy it. There's such a high percentage of users worldwide still on feature phones -- and even on my iPhone I much prefer mobile-specific designs.

I think focusing efforts on mobile design aids usability in a number of ways. First, as Nielsen points out, letting users fall back to a full Web site if they want it actually frees the mobile site to narrow its focus down to the essentials. If designers don't have to worry about fully mobilizing their Web presence in a mobile version, then the mobile version is likely to be much less cluttered.

Second, having a greater emphasis on mobile-specific designs might force the search ecosystem to focus on mobile results. Many friends in the industry argue with me over this, but I do not find the mobile search experience to be remotely satisfying, largely because its results push me to full Web sites rather than more targeted mobile landing pages.

There needs to be a greater seamlessness to the mobile search process so users start and end on pages that work best on their phones. The one metric that Nielsen and others can't provide is the number of people who just don't bother trying to find what they need on their mobile browser because a prior attempt was so frustrating.

6 comments about "The 'Misery' Of The Mobile Web ".
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  1. Gary Pobst, July 21, 2009 at 1:58 p.m.

    18 seconds to get local weather on the iPhone...ludicrous, I can get it 2 seconds by tapping the weather app; also, ridiculous to mix feature phones and iPhones in the same study; two totally different worlds.

  2. Eric Johnson, July 21, 2009 at 2 p.m.

    Agree entirely. Our struggle has been getting major publishers and brands to see this vision. They are so laser focused on iPhone apps which can't be knocked, but the mobile web will hit so many more people.

    Using a content management system to serve pages that look great across the multiple phones is a major step and easily accomplished. Then your content looks great on everyone's phone is easy to read and pages are served quickly.

  3. Lawrence Greenberg from Greenberg Media, Inc., July 21, 2009 at 2:01 p.m.

    Just based on my own positive experience as a Blackberry user, those are very surprising numbers.

    One might expect those responses to improve significantly in another year or two, as price cuts and increasing power drive broader smartphone adoption. Also, as you suggest, more sites will begin offering streamlined mobile versions, helping to improve overall user experience.

  4. Jim Dugan from PipPops LLC, July 21, 2009 at 2:28 p.m.

    We have developed an interactive mobile e-coupon platform for advertisers to create their own ad with full color image and barcode for instant savings when redeeming at the point of purchase.

    We considered having one page, but chose the alternative of two separate pages.

    One - the rich site on the computer -
    Two - the mobile site - which allows registered users to visit the preferred advertiser's business while on the go and get an instant savings at the point of purchase simply by using their mobi!

    Good example of having the two site approach as you can see they are completely different.

    By the way, it's been reported the 70% of search is for retail.

    By having all of the retail advertisers and more all at one site, allows all of us on the go to simply go to the site and with a couple of clicks you're saving money.

    It's simple. It's instant. It works on all phones.

    You don't have to download anything.

    When you search, it comes with a valuable discount e-coupon.

    If that's true, there's really no reason to search anywhere else for all of the local deals.

    Coming to your city soon.

    Good article, once again, Steve.

  5. Vance P. Hedderel from Afilias, July 21, 2009 at 6:16 p.m.

    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 forum as well as our free forum for marketers.

    On a parallel front ... given the poor economics of app building for a big world of different handsets, we're firm believers that browser-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 (like our friends from PipPops above are doing.)

  6. Debbie Pascoe from Accenture, August 7, 2009 at 9:45 a.m.

    I have to echo Gary's point-I rely on mobile apps to do the things I most frequently want my iPhone to do - the mobile browser is used only to read articles linked from other places that present that way - I avoid it to the greatest degree possible -with a few exceptions (Ex. American Airlines has done a good job of creating a mobile site). Disagree with Eric that mobile web can hit more people than apps - the numbers say different -

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