Forget the mobile web: One site should work for all

Forget the mobile web: One site should work for all

Summary: Some pundits argue you should have special versions of websites for mobile users and disabled people, but that's plain wrong, says web expert Bruce Lawson

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TOPICS: Tech Industry
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Access to the web is a human right, says Bruce Lawson. It should not matter if you browse using a mobile phone, or with an assistive technology because of a disability. You should still have access to the same website a desktop user enjoys.

Usability guru Jakob Nielsen wrote on his useit.com site recently: "Mobile-phone users struggle mightily to use websites, even on high-end devices. To solve the problems, websites should provide special mobile versions."

He's wrong. Making two or even three mediocre sites, designing and user-testing them, then trying to keep them in sync is a waste of time and money. Concentrate on preserving the 'One Web': that is, make one really good site that works across all devices.

However, Nielsen is right when he says: "Using a mobile makes you a disabled user", because most devices are slow and awkward to use, much like disabled people's assistive technologies. But the solution is not to splinter the web into device-specific sites such as 'mobile.example.com'. The solution is to use techniques conducive to universal design.

Special accessibility sites
Nobody makes separate 'disabled' sites any more. Originally, enlightened business owners who wanted to serve people with disabilities made special 'accessibility' sites that were separate from the main website. Assistive technologies couldn't cope with the full website, the developers argued: there were too many pictures, or the site couldn't be made accessible for some other technical reason. Disabled people didn't want the adverts, they said, and so were given a stripped-down, task-focused site.

The developers were wrong. Many disabled people did want the ads and the special offers. Many complained about the "separate but equal" treatment they were given by developers, who thought they knew best when it came to what disabled people want.

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Gradually, people learnt how to make sites accessible, visually pleasing and useful to all. Many techniques that are used to overcome disability barriers go a long way towards making sites that work well on mobile devices, and are documented by web-standards body the W3C in their online article Shared Web Experiences: Barriers Common to Mobile Device Users and People with Disabilities.

Mobile users also want the full experience rather than separate-but-equal treatment. There are ways to cater for smaller screens in code via handheld stylesheets or, even better, a CSS technique called media queries, which allows a developer to send a different layout optimised for the capabilities of different devices. You make one website, and the stylesheet sends different layouts to devices with smaller screens. I don't know if Nielsen knows of these methods, which are available for Opera, Safari and soon in Firefox.

As well as the developer sending different styles, mobile browsers are getting cleverer too. Users can customise the settings so their mobile never downloads images that consume lots of bandwidth. Some browsers will rearrange...

Topic: Tech Industry

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7 comments
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  • Forgetting context? - there never was "one web".

    Sorry, but I completely disagree with the premisses of your article. There never was "One web" in the first place. There is twitter, there is spotify, my first internet experience was with the tank game Bolo on an old beige mac.
    A lot of websites are totally unusable in a mobile environment. But have a great user experience in a normal browser. Should they really redesign?
    And do we really want the same stuff in all contexts? I don't think you don't want the same things from your online bank at the bus, as you want at home.
    With your approach everyone who wants to design an experience for a real mobile context will have to write an app for appStore. 'Cause then they can do what they want.
    To finish of; Have you ever tried to play a browser based online multiplayer browsergame on Opera mini? I have, and I think most people will be begging for customized, mobile version if they had.
    Mobile versions of sites are here already. And they will explode in numbers in 2009. :-)
    Feiring
  • One site can work for all...

    "I don't think you don't want the same things from your online bank at the bus, as you want at home"

    maybe it's just me, but when i go to my online banking site at home, i don't care much for the bulk of offers, upsells, adverts...i quickly skip through the rubbish, find the "my account" login, and then go through the far more task-focussed system that lets me see my statements, standing orders, etc...which is exactly what i'd want when mobile, too. so, to echo bruce's point, it's an argument for making the desktop experience more task-focussed. the only difference, for me, when using the desktop at home is that i have a large screen and a mouse which enable me to filter through the crap on the bank site quicker and home in on the account login button - my needs, however, are the same, no matter where i am (home, at bus stop, travelling abroad, etc).

    "A lot of websites are totally unusable in a mobile environment. But have a great user experience in a normal browser. Should they really redesign?"

    yes, because they can redesign by employing media queries and small-screen-specific styles, without even having to touch the look and feel for "normal" browsing.

    "With your approach everyone who wants to design an experience for a real mobile context will have to write an app for appStore. 'Cause then they can do what they want."

    as the article mentions, in certain edge cases (which would need to be considered on a case-by-case basis), there may well be situations that absolutely require a separate mobile/small screen version. but then, offer users the choice of switching between the diet and full-fat versions (rather than force-redirecting any user with a mobile user agent string purely to the diet version).

    "To finish of; Have you ever tried to play a browser based online multiplayer browsergame on Opera mini? I have, and I think most people will be begging for customized, mobile version if they had."

    fundamentally, i think the problem with these types of discussions is that they're too theoretical...let's put some urls up that you feel are good examples of sites that will categorically not work well as they are in a mobile context and let's discuss those in particular.
    redux@...
  • One web for all

    I agree with the thrust of the story and the second poster. Too many sites are bloated rubbish. I always skip intros. How arrogant of website owners to think we all want to watch slow-loading uninformative gumph.

    And how much worse it gets if one has to return to such a website repeatedly?

    By all means have a link to long videos or overloaded pages, but don't make everybody suffer. Why should we all have to put up with badly-written websites? Mobile or no mobile.

    Dori S
    DAS01
  • Very good points, but I stick by my arguments.

    The reason I used an online bank as an example is that this is a good case of massive amounts of information. A good online bank will provide you with the tools to manage your whole private economy. In a mobile context, you don't want that information. You want the hands on stuff. At a glance account information, and some easy tasks connected to what you may do on the road, like moneytransfers.

    Here's a question; When the phone becomes a transaction tool. (it already is in Japan, everyone pays just about everything with their phones). Shouldn't the phones online experience be built to reflect and support this?

    Another good example would be google analytics. The amount of information is staggering, but I want it all on my 24" desktop. On my phone? not so much. I want just the basics. A totally different set of information. This could be solwed by more customizable pages, but then that's just what a mobile webpage is.

    Regarding the edge cases. Does the number of apps on Apples app store indicate that mobile customization is about edge cases?

    This seems like a holy grail discussion, The premises "Only presentation should change, information should stay the same" is layed down in stone. Where is the reason in that? Where does this idea come from? News are not the same on Radio as on TV. Should every watch have the same info? from a diamond rolex to a sports casio? No way. It's about what's neccessary, and desirable, in each context.

    Redesigning the "one" web to fit on mobiles as well, while screens on the other end of the scale are growing and turning to video and other media, seems like not just a bad idea, but also an impossible one.
    Feiring
  • Differnence in webapp en website, context and task

    Thank you for the nice article and different view on the subject, although I don't agree with all of it. I have the feeling you are saying the same as J. Nielsen. "You should optimize your website to view on a mobile", may it be by css media types or user-agent redirects. That means you have a different website no?

    "He's wrong. Making two or even three mediocre sites, designing and user-testing them, then trying to keep them in sync is a waste of time and money."

    If I read the article, he is not saying you should make a mediocre site, he is pointing out that there are different ways of interaction on mobile devices and you should optimize your content and website to gain usability on mobile websites.

    "Gradually, people learnt how to make sites accessible, visually pleasing and useful to all. "

    This is working 2 ways, the possibilities on making websites more accessible depends on the browsers as much as the techniques used by the developer. Because desktop browsers are becoming more stand compliant it is easier and less time consuming to get your website accessible. For the moment, all the mobile browsers are like Netscape, IE and who know what 10 years ago. All making different assumptions on standard. "I think the browser developers should for once start working together, instead of making there own decisions." Making the web accessible is one of there jobs!

    "Mobile users also want the full experience rather than separate-but-equal treatment."

    Again I don't agree with that. The task and context are totally different. On a desktop a users has time, "privacy", easy input and screen space. On a mobile a user has no time, no privacy, difficult input and no screen space. The task at hand are so different that a user needs different options to work with. Take the bank example.
    On the desktop you have a full overview of all the products the bank sells and the different task options. Does a user want that information at the moment he is on his mobile? Or is the user visiting your site with a task at hand, for example transferring money? I think you can say mobile user don't really surf the web but are task orientated. While desktop users are surfing the web.

    "Users can customise the settings so their mobile never downloads images that consume lots of bandwidth."

    User are lazy, they don't want to change settings so they can optimize the browser experience. The browser comes as it is and the website should serve the options for the task the want to do. Mind you, different tasks on mobile and desktop.

    "But that's not an argument for a separate mobile version; it's an argument for slimming down the flabby desktop site."

    Totally agree with you, that some websites present stuff that is in no use for user,... or ist it? Shouldn't we forget that there is also a branding and marketing objective with websites? Splash pages are totally 2004 but some branding can be done no?

    "If your site really, really needs a mobile version
    shortye
  • Efficiency is the key...

    Having one site that dynamically fits all end devices irregardless of what it may be is the key, that way when new technology comes about very little time is waisted deploying it in the way you have become accustomed to using it.

    I want the same accessibility and experience on my mobile device as i have on my desktop machine, I don't want to waist time relearning how to use something every time i upgrade.

    The article stands.
    CA-aba1d
  • I agree with Bruce totally, but the reality is that producing one website for all devices is quite difficult. I have been working on different aspects of this with some success, but the usability of a 'one web' website is just now beginning to materialize. The iPhone and other advanced smartphones can now process a well formed (xHTML MP compliant) web page including javascript and and CSS correctly (as meant by the developer). More complete standards, as well as strictly following current standards make it possible to create reasonable 'multi device' websites, but browsers like IE and Mobile IE are still a real problem to true 'one web' success. Since people still use these 'crap' browsers with their relatively little standards compliance, the 'one web' dream is still a ways off.
    dwightvietzke