Forget the mobile web: One site should work for all

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
Written by Bruce Lawson, Contributor

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.

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...

...the content to fit into one column, or allow users to zoom into content without any input from the developer.

That's the nature of the One Web: make a single site, send a suggested display and accept that users will customise to their heart's content.

Some intelligent browsers make the One Web reality by transcoding and compressing content to reduce data costs and waiting time [disclosure: I work for Opera, the maker of Opera Mini, which performs these tasks].

Content display decisions
Some people dislike these mobile browsers. It is fundamentally wrong, they argue, that browsers rearrange or reformat content; the content provider has the ultimate right to decide how the content is displayed. This is anachronistic nonsense. Pixel-perfect rendering is PDF, not the web.

Of course, you own the intellectual-property rights to your content, but you can't dictate display. Users have always been able to resize text or override fonts. Screen-readers turn text into speech. Print stylesheets reformat pages and strip out nav bars that are no use on paper. Search engines and mash-ups rearrange content. That's what the web does.

The best objection I've heard to the idea that one website can serve all devices is the argument that some content is more suited to mobile devices and some is more suitable for desktops.

The most common examples are of restaurants and travel websites. On phones, people simply want to find out opening times and the address of their favourite eatery, or whether their train is running late. And Nielsen is right when he says "bloated pages hurt users". But that's not an argument for a separate mobile version; it's an argument for slimming down the flabby desktop site.

What desktop visitors value
Desktop visitors largely dislike restaurants' immersive brand experience and choose 'skip intro'. They don't value the big picture of the train company's bearded chief executive, grinning broadly. Just like mobile users, desktop users are task-focused. The best way to ensure repeat visits is to make sure you don't waste visitors' time when they are with you.

If your site really, really needs a mobile version — perhaps your users are stuck with ancient browsers or you're doing something unimaginably special — do not lock your users in. Offer them the choice of which version they receive.

For 99 percent of sites, content that is good for mobiles is good content, full stop, and should be served to desktop users, too. Media queries are the way to save time and money by writing one site to run across devices. Device-specific sites for disabled people disappeared as browsers and web standards improved.

Let's hope history repeats itself for the mobile web.

Bruce Lawson works as an open-web-standards evangelist for Opera. He has been involved in standards and accessibility since 2002. The views expressed in this column are his own. You can follow him on Twitter.

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