Let me begin by acknowledging that everything you're about to read is completely unfair. I cannot possibly have uncovered the five worst mobile websites, because that would require me to have reviewed all of the world's mobile websites, a process that would have rendered me blind, mad, broke, and unable to write this article. There's also the whole question of rampant subjectivity, though I never really let that stand in my way.
But what's really unfair is that I'm about to pick on brands that actually have mobile websites, when what I really should be doing is launching into yet another rant about the actual majority of brands that don't yet have them, vs. the actual majority of mobile users that now have smartphones and are increasingly dependent on the mobile web. Instead I'll confine that rant to this one paragraph, do some deep breathing exercises, then move on to my main rant. Since at least one in seven searches is now conducted on the mobile web, this tidal wave of a usability crisis has been compared to shutting down your business one day a week, and even that grim analogy doesn't factor in consumer annoyance. Having a poor mobile site is inhospitable; not having a mobile site is inexcusable.
In choosing examples of bad mobile experiences, I deliberately excluded (with one glaring exception) brands that offer only their desktop websites on mobile, because that would be like shooting fish in a barrel, and I could only recommend that these bullet-ridden fish carcasses be chucked out and replaced with true mobile sites. I think it's more useful to look at the way that brands are meeting -- or failing to meet -- emerging usability standards for mobile sites, because it's high time we started caring about those standards on behalf of 100 million smartphone users.
To that end, rather than trying to simply expose five bad mobile sites, I looked for sites that were archetypal of certain common mobile usability problems. The sites may be good in other ways, but their usability problems get in the way of users completing their tasks. So being on this list is sort of like coming in last place in an Ugly Dog Contest -- you may have some ugly bits, but you can be sure that at least some of the competition is a whole lot uglier.
The used car salesman: Dell
Dell has a good mobile site: functional, generally well prioritized, and graphically elegant compared to the austerity of many mobile sites. The problem is that you can't cross the car lot to check out this fine piece of machinery without being intercepted by the car salesman. I refer to the pernicious habit (Dell is just one prominent offender) of placing an intercept screen in front of the mobile site, demanding that the user accept or decline the generous offer to download the brand's mobile app.
Others have made this point better than I, but let me make it plain: mobile app and mobile site use cases are different. The user standing in the store aisle avidly seeking more specs on a Dell laptop doesn't want the app; they want the info as quickly as they can get it. White Horse's own study on in-aisle mobile found that users were more than twice as likely to use the mobile web, and most users in our study carried only one or two retailer or manufacturer mobile apps on their phone. That jives with a study by Deloitte that found that 80 percent of branded apps were downloaded fewer than 1,000 times.
It's perfectly legitimate for Dell to tout its mobile app through a link on its mobile site, as many brands do. The app will find favor with the small minority of visitors that regularly make Dell purchases, or follow the brand closely. All other visitors will be annoyed by the car salesman, and some will walk off the lot.
The bad first date: Hardee's
The fast food chain Hardee's actually pulls the car salesman app trick too, but I do not wish to pick a fight with people whose love of Hardee's extends to brandishing their loyalty app. No, my quarrel with Hardee's is that it's pretty much a dead certainty that if I'm thumbing for Hardee's on my mobile, I'm trying to get to one...maybe, just maybe, the closest one.
So why not meet a guy halfway, so to speak, by offering to sniff my location, at least until I'm close enough to sniff those fresh-baked biscuits? And how the hell should I know what zip code I'm in, anyway? I'm not at home, I'm barreling down I-70 with a hankering in my belly for a Pork Chop 'N Gravy Biscuit. (Warning: Do not use mobile devices while barreling down I-70. I am not advocating any such thing.)
Most chains with any kind of mobile presence have gotten on board for location-sniffing, and well they should: It's simple, friendly, and users want it. But Hardee's compounds that offense with zero brand appeal, anemic content, tiny orange-on-red links, and an odd emphasis on nutritional information -- very candid of them, but never anyone's first reason for seeking out a Hardee's. I conclude from their mobile site that they don't want me to visit. It's just as well; the nearest one is 700 miles away.
The base model: Jeep
I feel really lousy about picking on Jeep's mobile site, because I love my Jeep with an unhealthy, Golem-like degree of attachment, but they say you only hurt the ones you love. I should also point out that Jeep's mobile site is evidently based on a poor template established by parent company Chrysler. But Jeep gets extra demerits for failing to resize its promotional touts for mobile, so that its "Name My Ride" promotion appears as "Name My R," which Ernie and Bert once played on "Sesame Street."
The main problem, though, is that Chrysler/Jeep's mobile presence epitomizes the mistaken belief that a mobile site must be nearly stripped of features in order to be usable. Other carmakers like Chevy and Toyota disprove this notion by offering rich features like color swaps, 360-degree views, and ways to explore specific features -- all within the constraints of a tiny screen, by using expandable content and clever swipe interfaces.
Unlike a Chevy, a Jeep can take you anywhere, but you wouldn't know that from their mobile site, which takes you nowhere. You get a long, text-heavy description of the vehicle, and the ability to check out offers and local inventory. That's it. No sizzle with that steak. As a digital marketer, I'll try hard not to get my feelings hurt over such a poor mobile investment by a company that spent $10 million for two minutes of Super Bowl advertising. But c'mon: Has Clint seen this thing? It's halftime in the mobile web, America.
The trauma patient: Johns Hopkins
Johns Hopkins Hospital has been ranked the top hospitals in the U.S. for the last twenty years in a row, so it's somewhat mystifying that its mobile site should be one of the worst among its peers. Its reputation is such that a poor mobile site is unlikely to do any actual brand damage, but I'm calling it out because healthcare mobile sites, just like healthcare websites, have a special responsibility to their users: The quality of the user experience is perceived as an extension of the quality of care they provide.
The high-priority use cases for a hospital system mobile site are much easier to sort out than an emergency room triage: Overwhelmingly, users are trying to find a hospital location, find a doctor, or set an appointment. Children's Memorial Hospital of Chicago managed to figure this out, and they got a well-deserved shout-out from Mobile Awesomeness for doing so.
While the Hopkins mobile homepage shown above gives new meaning to the concept of "redundant links," I'll spare you that obvious piece of scrutiny and point out a common failure of best practices beyond the lack of prioritization: Mobile links need to be thumb-clickable. I swear I did not engineer this entire article solely so that I could make an excruciating pun out of "rule of thumb," but you can't blame me for swinging at the lobbed pitches: A good, um, rule of thumb for mobile links is to create a clickable area at least thirty pixels in height, which is why so many mobile sites resemble a set of venetian blinds.
Irony of the year award: Nokia
I did say I would eventually violate my own rule about only scrutinizing mobile sites, so here goes: Really, Nokia? No mobile site? While I am not the first to criticize you for being late to the smartphone party, I am the poor sap who identified your Lumia 900 with Windows 8 as one of the top mobile trends of 2012, so there's some egg on my face too. The lack of any mobile context at all from a mobile brand is egregious enough to include in this list, even though I'm singling it out from thousands of brands that haven't bothered to prioritize mobile.
Again, I'll go back to the subject of use cases. From what vantage point might a user be trying to evaluate Nokia's much- ballyhooed push into a crowded smartphone market? One such use case might be, oh, I don't know, an avid Android smartphone user who uses his phone for all manner of searches and wishes to size up the latest and greatest in the field. Tough luck for me, then, because the links on the Nokia site aren't readable on my smartphone, though I am invited to take an equally unreadable usability survey, so perhaps hope is on the way.
I said earlier that all cases of not having any sort of mobile site were inexcusable, and I stand by that, 1200 words later. But at least in the case of, say, Patagonia, I can allow that they're all too busy stress-testing their gear on mountain peaks to bother with their mobile presence. You guys, on the other hand, are busy making mobile phones. Time to alleviate the irony.
The bottom line is that brands need to think altogether differently about the user experience in order to get mobile right. The mobile site should not be an afterthought to the mobile app, a stripped-down version of the desktop site, a brand vacuum, or worst of all, the same damn experience packed into a sardine tin. The mobile experience is one of many touchpoints the user is likely to have with the brand, and as in all of these touchpoints, context matters. Brands should start with a clear understanding of their users' mobile needs and build experiences that don't merely fulfill but delight their users. It may be that we need such a radical adjustment in thinking that we should start with mobile, and then build desktop experiences that proceed from this emphasis on simplicity and usability. But one thing is for certain: When brands finally come around to mobile in a serious way, their customers will have already been there long before.
Eric Anderson is partner and VP of marketing at White Horse.
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