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

Time for some summer reruns. Perhaps the most commented on and shared piece I wrote in the last six months was a full-on rant on the butt-ugliness of many mobile sites, their ad clutter, their frustrating experience. Unfortunately, the piece is as relevant now as it was months ago, perhaps more so. Too many publishers are giving off the whiff of desperation in the way they pile on ad units that break performance, break experience, break any common design sense. The migration of mobile users from desktop to mobile is bringing it its wake an even faster migration of worst practices.  

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 that is 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? 

This column was previously published in the Mobile Insider on May 26, 2015.
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