Many organizations are finding out that there is more to designing the mobile user experience than simply reformatting the view via CSS.

It's a Mobile World

Increasingly the world wide web is being viewed on mobile devices, of all shapes and size. Granted this isn’t really news, but it is a definite trend and one that has ramifications for many of us involved in web engagement. In days gone by the mobile web was the poor relation to the desktop experience. As traditional browsers fought with each other for dominance, and standards competed for acceptance, just getting a mobile connection in the first place was considered good going.

Mobile hardware consisted of WAP enabled phones and tiny grey scale screens. Websites were squashed down, stripped of any graphics, and delivered into peoples hands almost as an afterthought. As viewing the web on the move became a realistic proposition, approaches to development and delivery matured. But not far enough it would seem. As iPhones, iPads and Androids push the web further and further afield the time has come to consider what truly makes a good mobile web site.

Usability and Mobile Devices

Jakob Nielsen, he of usability fame, commented earlier this year about mobile content, and the special attention it deserves. He made the following points:

  • Using the web is difficult on mobile devices
  • It’s slow
  • Often there is no keyboard
  • Often there us no mouse pointer to use
  • Invariably there is a small screen

So far so obvious, but he also points out some work by researchers at the University of Alberta. They have conducted tests that suggest it is much harder to understand information when it is viewed on a small screen, than on a traditional desktop monitor. This is nothing to do with formatting, layout, or styles -- simply a result of the form factor of the screen.

The Cloze Test

The researchers asked people to complete what is known as a Cloze test. This tests the participants ability to understand a passage of text when certain works are removed, and looks at their ability to understand context and vocabulary. The test used the privacy policies of a number of popular websites, using a desktop PC and an iPhone. The results show a comprehension score of 39% for the desktop screen, and 19% for the iPhone screen. Scores should be 60% or higher for text to be considered easy to understand.

The low scores generally are because a privacy policy is a difficult document to read. But the ratio is the interesting thing here, suggesting (roughly speaking) that content was twice as hard to understand when reading on a mobile screen. The research highlights two things:

  • On a mobile device users can see less content at a given time. Less context means less understanding.
  • Users must move around the page more, using scrolling, to view all the available content. This takes more time and diverts attention away from the point of the piece.

It's About More than CSS Reformatting

So what does this mean for the mobile web? Well development efforts for a long time have focused on formatting of content, to make it fit a mobile device and download in good time. The miracle that is CSS means that form is separated from function, or rather more specifically content can be shared between platforms and displayed in different formats.

This research suggests though that this is not enough. It would seem a truly ‘mobile’ mobile site needs to have its own content, written in such a way to work with the reduced screen estate. A very crude example would see a news style report being rewritten as a snappier summary of the original story. When viewed on a mobile device it will require less scrolling, and more of the content can be seen in one place. The end result? A better understanding of the piece by the end user.

Final Thoughts

It seems as we move toward a more mobile web, we may also need to understand the different ways people interact on pocket devices. Not only do mobile sites often require their own design and layout, but also their own specially authored content. Mobile web development may be a whole bigger investment than many people yet realize.

Editor's Note: Follow all of our experts views on Web Engagement, including: