Get This Crap Off My Phone: We Are Screwing Up The Mobile Experience

Along with eyeballs, time spent, content and ad dollars, the clutter and crap that has made the overall desktop Web experience a horror show has gone mobile too. My frustration has been brewing for a while now as I watch ever more legacy media sites relaunch in more responsive modes that purport to incorporate more native ad units, better content merchandising, and an array of other monetization strategies. As I peruse these sites, it has become clear to me that too many publishers are so frantically chasing monetization that the overall user experience is degenerating quickly. To wit, my main pet peeves.

Native Run Amok: The necessarily compressed mobile design amplifies a sourcing problem already rife online. In a multi-column desktop or tablet design, it is easier to segregate blocks of sponsored links. Some publishers are piling on so many different modes of native ad monetization now, that the one-column mobile feed is getting cluttered and editorial voice is unclear. The “sponsored post” tags are deceptively small and grey.

Intrusive Ads Are Becoming Obstructive: Increasingly I come upon in-feed mobile ad units that hijack the basic scroll gesture. I am not sure what is going on technically in the background, but trying to scroll up within the ad unit itself fails to move the screen. The even more common frustration involves microscopic Close buttons that are designed to be missed or to trigger the ad click-through. Let’s not mince words here. Consumers are on to you. They know the ad and the publisher running it are actively trying to frustrate them or trick them.

The Persistent Banner Obstructs Navigation: When placed at the bottom of the Safari browser on an iPhone, the persistent banner makes the user hesitant to use the browser’s native pop-up navigation tools. In recent iterations of Safari, the Back/Forward/Tools menu disappears when you start scrolling a Web page and is reinvoked by a gentle tap at the bottom of the screen. A bottom-lying persistent banner confuses the user, who seems to be risking clicking into the ad rather than getting the tools. If my own mixed results are an indicator, then this layout causes a lot of false clicks and frustrated users.

Your Banners Are Not Scaling: I don’t know what snake oil your ad tech platform is peddling to you, but as often as not ad units look poorly sized in a mobile scroll or shrunken on a tablet. Even factoring in that my eyes are aging and I am working mainly on the now-diminutive iPhone, even larger square units carry too much microscopic information to be ported into a mobile stream. Likewise, a lot of banners scaled to a mobile banner size are making their way onto tablets. Nothing looks sillier, especially in landscape browsing mode, than an unresponsive mobile banner ad on a tablet screen. Worse, many of these units are actually standard, info-filled banner ads scaled to mobile ad pixel sizes and then slapped onto the tablet. So you get a ridiculously small ad unit combined with creative that is too small even for the mobile phone format, on a larger screen. Honey, I shrunk the ad!

Ad Clutter Is Real: A number of major media mobile sites are stacking their house app ad (prompting me to open one of my installed apps) on top of a standard banner and then following it one screen below with a sponsored post. Come on. Your house ad is clashing with your own advertiser. And your users can smell the desperation with which you are trying to monetize them in the first five seconds.

“Responsive” To What? To Whom?: While this is a controversy my assertions clearly won’t settle, I find responsive designs more cumbersome to the user than helpful. The components of most sites make a lot more sense in the multi-columned desktop or tablet format. When stacked atop one another they usually feel more like a random content pile-up. These designs are not responsive to the user so much as responsive to the publisher’s need for efficiency and refusal to believe that mobile is a different experience that demands its own design sense.

Several years ago I welcomed the rise of the native and Web app as an invitation for publishers to rethink their cluttered desktop strategy. Some did. But it may have been inevitable that as eyeballs and the rush to monetize them went to devices, we would start suffering the same problems on small screens. The mobile Web especially is starting to adopt a messy aesthetic that drove many of us from the desktop years ago: the NASCAR racer approach to monetization.

Publishers need to take responsibility for the quality of the mobile user experience, and advertisers should be supporting the media companies that are creating clean, well-lit and seamless mobile contexts. 

What is your pet peeve regarding the increasingly compromised mobile user experience?  

17 comments about "Get This Crap Off My Phone: We Are Screwing Up The Mobile Experience".
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  1. Matt Cooper from Addroid, May 26, 2015 at 9:10 p.m.

    Steve, how do you feel about the current ideration of As far as responsive goes, I feel like they got it right. Not only does the design morph to the dimension of your browser but the ads it delivers are in propotion to that size and aspect ratio. I feel like ESPN has addressed many of the isues that you bring in this post. I'm looking forward to seeing if the rest of the market follows this example. 

  2. Kim Stuart from, May 26, 2015 at 9:21 p.m.

    Yay!  Love this article!  Too much crap taking up too much space for the average small screen.  I think that one BIG issue is the concept of responsive.  If the marketing dept or the dev don't understand that UX is a key to better time on site, they need to get a new job.  

    I'm going to guess that most aren't actually looking at the 'responsive' output, they just believe it's there and it works properly...  it's pretty obvious that if no one is proofreading the content output, it's not that likely that anyone is really taking a hard look at the display output.   

    I would have thought that Mobilegeddon would have made sites take a hard look at their screens, but I suppose if you're buying traffic and don't care about search results, it's not that big of a deal. 

  3. Ari Rosenberg from Performance Pricing Holdings, LLC, May 26, 2015 at 9:35 p.m.

    Totally correct and totally not surprised -- we don't change because we don't care about users Steve.  Great and ballsy writing.

  4. Liz Smith from Creative Media Experiences, May 26, 2015 at 11:50 p.m.

    Of course, advertising on mobile was going to continue down the same path as all other channels. Interruptive of our experience. Annoying. Forcing us to find a work-around. What will it take for publishers to value their audiences - and access to those audiences - enough to charge premium prices?

  5. Kim Stuart from, May 27, 2015 at 12:13 a.m.

    Well, it will take audiences willing to pay as much NOT to be advertised to as the amount of revenue that advertising generates.  That's a simple equation. 

  6. Brad Stewart from Molecule Inc., May 27, 2015 at 8:45 a.m.

    I agree. I can't believe the world that it supposed to be filled with creative innovators is resorting to a sort of eyeball-bullying. The mobile experience is starting to feel like a Monty Python sketch. I knock on a door because I'm interested in what's behind it. I'm met with a cold shoe to the groin. Door gets slammed. 

  7. Marty DeAngelo from Digitas Health, May 27, 2015 at 8:54 a.m.

    I've noticed this and seen it get increasingly worse, often to the point where it becomes difficult to even tell what is article and what is ad within the article. Sadly, news sites are among the worst at this (yes, I'm looking at you NBC affiliates).

    But the worst perpetrators are the linkbait sites that people like George Takei link to -, viralnova, etc.. Not only do they stick countless ads and linkbait throughout the post to the point of making it virtually impossible to discern the content, but then they split content onto multiple pages to even further drive up ad views. 

  8. John Paris from Magzter Inc., May 27, 2015 at 9:08 a.m.

    Honest and on target as usual Steve. You left out one of the most annoying and self-defeating experiences though -- automatically redirecting from a page I wanted to read to open the app store page for downloading some junk app.

  9. Mani Gandham from Instinctive, May 27, 2015 at 10:24 a.m.

    This is the unfortunate result of too many vendors and platforms selling "mobile" capabilities as pure marketing terms without actually doing anything different. 

    Native is probably the only format that works on mobile naturally with the feed but it should have clear disclaimers and also be the only unit on the page, maybe followed by more units depending on how far the feed is scrolled. Trying to shove banners and link widgets and overlays into a mobile experience is just horrible for the user, not to mention the time and data wasted waiting for content to load on slower mobile networks and devices. This is also the reason why Facebook launched their Instant Articles, to mostly sidestep the terrible interfaces and load times of most sites.

    Publishers really need to stop ruining user experience for short-term unsustainable gains. A better site experience focused on content first with well managed ads means more user attention and retention, something that will pay far more dividends in long-term revenue.

  10. Anita Grace from Anita Grace AD Execs, May 27, 2015 at 10:31 a.m.

    Agreed and very well said.  I was just thinking that yesterday as a banner ad was taking up 1/5 of my mobile screen and I was trying to read an article.  I literally said out loud "I never click on these things".  With all the craze of the internet and mobile, traditional media is suffering.  Traditional media has a higher engagement level than other media.  Buyers seem to like mobile and digital because of the high numbers and low cpm's.  My question is : What's worth more?  Fewer impressions but deeper engagement or More impressions with little to no engagement?
    I would say if a brand is trying to build a relationship with the consumer, traditional media is more trusted and more engaging.

  11. David Vawter from Doe-Anderson, May 27, 2015 at 4:57 p.m.

    Newspaper:  medium of the future?

  12. Suzy Sandberg from, May 27, 2015 at 5 p.m.

    Great article.  I was literally stumped this week on how to x out of a banner that took over my screen.  In microscopic faint type at the very bottom of the screen it realized it said "skip."  I agree that content sites (magazines, news) are the worst.  Martha Stewart runs a banner that makes you type the name of the advertiser in banner that serves as the catcha. 

  13. George Parker from Parker Consultants, May 27, 2015 at 8:09 p.m.

    And on a "Smart Watch" can you imagine???

  14. John Grono from GAP Research, May 27, 2015 at 9:41 p.m.

    Spot on Steve.   And to think that people say TV is too cluttered.

  15. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, May 28, 2015 at 7:44 a.m.

    Let's not forget that only half of the intended clutter is "visible". Just wait until they get that problem sorted. You aint seen--no pun intended---nuthin yet.

  16. LLoyd Berry from Moving In Media, May 28, 2015 at 7:44 a.m.

    Well said Steve!  The engagement factor is no longer being considered with in the marketplace it seems anymore. You don’t think the screen clutter could be caused by media sellers trying to run as many high paying mobile ad units as possible for the sake of dollars?

  17. Kevin Horne from Verizon, May 28, 2015 at 2:22 p.m.

    Hah - i wrote about this for the desktop/laptop experience three years ago. As expected, the crap user experience has migrated to the smartphone. (try reading an article on for example without it (re)-loading THREE times in rapid succession as you try to read and scroll, oops, read and scroll, oops....

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