Marketers have a cruel streak. How else to explain the torments we inflict on consumers trying earnestly to connect with us on the mobile web? As smartphone penetration in the U.S. surges toward the 100 million mark, that's 100 million cases of eyestrain, anxiety, and high blood pressure, not to mention countless injuries related to tripping over curbs and wandering into traffic while attempting to "pinch to zoom."
Renowned usability expert Jakob Nielsen, a man not normally given to hyperbole, described this sorry state of affairs in dramatic terms in his 2009 report on mobile website usability: "Observing users suffer during our sessions reminded us of the very first usability studies we did with traditional websites in 1994. It was that bad."
"But wait," you'll say. "That study is from back in the Jurassic Age of mobility, almost two years ago. Surely the mobile web has been transformed since then?" Well, no. We were going to transform the mobile web into something highly usable and useful, but then Angry Birds came along, resulting in a complete loss of productivity for 12 months at a cost of $100 billion to the U.S. economy. (These figures are approximate.)
So we're way overdue to give consumers some relief from these abysmal mobile experiences. We've got our work cut out for us: dotMobi reports that only 29.7 percent of the web's top 10,000 sites are optimized for mobile. And an increasingly mobile-savvy populace is demanding better experiences; they're willing to let their thumbs do the walking to competitors that can deliver a mobile site that works. But since it is better to light a single fire under the marketing community than to curse the darkness that is the mobile web, I humbly offer some simple recommendations based on five of the most common mobile site fails.
Marketers love to talk about context, as the question of what consumers are doing when they encounter your brand has a lot to do with the success of the encounter. In mobile, location is context: You not only need to care about where users are when they access your site, but you also need to care about it above all else. When I access the Lowe's site on my Android, for instance, the company figures there's a good chance I need to get to a Lowe's right away. It offers to, uh, sniff my location (still not entirely comfortable with that phrase), and point me to the nearest store. But it also takes the location context a step further, touting its in-store pick-up service so my purchase can be ready when I get there.
Location-sniffing is a core capability of the mobile-friendly HTML5 platform, which means that it's easily and inexpensively within the reach of every brand with retail locations. It's therefore hard to accept the fact that when I visit Ikea on my Android, the company is unable to ascertain which continent I'm on. It forces me to find my country before I can find my store. Could this be narrowed down a bit? I think so.
3G smartphones created a monster: They allow full-featured traditional websites to be rendered on a mobile screen at reasonable speed, which has made us much lazier about actually building sites for mobile. Virtually all brands can now lay claim to having a mobile website, as long as that's defined as "a site that shows up on a mobile device." This leads to the problem of thumbs, which are the devices that humans mainly use to navigate their mobile devices. A site built for a 1024x768 screen cannot be successfully navigated by thumb alone on a 320x480 screen -- unless success is defined by making users mistakenly click on as many links as possible in order to drive up the site's traffic stats.
A good mobile site is built for the thumb. It prioritizes user task paths down to an essential few that can be delivered at a thumb-friendly size, helping the user to single-handedly drill down to key content without having to drop the toddler, hammer, or flaming torch they clutch in the other. The Wells Fargo mobile site, for instance, gives me just four links: my three most likely task paths, and an option to go the full site if I'm feeling all ambidextrous.
Forms are the bane of the mobile experience. (Actually, friends who won't get off Foursquare in restaurants are the bane of the mobile experience, but forms are a close second.) Since most sites still deliver poorly designed forms after a decade and a half on the traditional web, it's not terribly surprising that mobile forms are even worse.
Travel-related forms have a special responsibility to be highly usable because travelers are short on time, out of their element, and under duress from having been made to watch a Jennifer Aniston in-flight movie. In the example below, Hertz delivers a form designed to sooth and satisfy: It requires no zooming, no side-to-side scrolling, and it breaks down a longer process into manageable steps. It doesn't try to display every possible field, but rather delivers only the fields the user needs based on the information that person provides each step of the way.
National, by comparison, delivers its full web form, complete with massive drop-down location menus that are nearly impossible to use on mobile. In such cases, it's easy to imagine that brand selection might be driven by the mobile experience alone -- and that I'll be driving off in a Hertz rental rather than one of National's.
Designed for the thumb, mobile sites are rarely sexy, which might be why creative agencies haven't been vying for Cannes Lions on the strength of their mobile designs. But mobile usability doesn't require monk-like austerity either. Online retailers especially tend to sacrifice their brand story on their mobile sites for the sake of delivering their product catalogs well. It's a well-intentioned trade-off, but how can you sell your products if you don't, well, sell your products?
The assumption is that mobile users aren't really doing the top-of-the-funnel stuff -- researching the brand, figuring out what the company stands for, and what makes it different. But that assumption is wrong; my agency recently completed its own in-aisle research on consumer use of retail mobile sites; the research found that consumers hit the mobile site throughout the funnel, from top-level research down to price comparisons. Other studies, including the CMB Consumer Pulse report, confirm this behavior as well.
As with everything else, the brand story needs to be optimized for mobile. Since you're not going to be delivering the 3D World of Immersive Flash Awesomeness on your mobile site, creativity of a different sort is needed. Use words, for instance. Consider how you might tell your brand story uniquely for the mobile user. Take, for instance, outdoor retailer KEEN, whose mobile site is so barren that a tumbleweed drifted through on my last visit. Its new brand theme is "Recess is Back," which would seem to offer rich possibilities for talking to users about the recess they might be taking while they're out and about with their mobile device. But the theme is nowhere on the site.
Building mobile sites is not hard, but aligning big organizations behind what the site will and will not deliver can be harder than health care reform. The result is often an unfortunate half-measure: a mobile-ready homepage that dumps the unsuspecting clicker back into an unusable website.
This tactic might actually be worse than doing nothing. The change in navigation and layout from one experience to the next is disorienting to the user and more likely to prompt them to throw in the towel.
In the case of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center site shown below, the mobile homepage does a great job of anticipating user needs and prioritizing navigation based on the most frequent task paths on hospital sites: finding a physician and locating a facility. But the physician finder link drops the user into the web tool, complete with those notoriously long dropdown menus, while the location finder misses the perfect opportunity to integrate mobile navigation to help users en route to the hospital.
To avoid the lipstick-on-the-pig scenario, marketers need to build consensus internally for a complete mobile experience. The best way to do this is to rally your stakeholders around the decision-maker whose judgments count the most: the user. A good user-centered design process also helps to evangelize the importance of the mobile experience among the nay-saying stakeholders by making the users' pain keenly felt.
As Jakob Nielsen could attest, there's nothing quite like watching a user's anguish to convince you that change needs to happen. Right after you level up on Angry Birds.
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