The Mobile Fallacy

Brad Frost wrote an excellent overview of Content Parity saying “it’s alright to optimize the presentation of content as long as the content remains accessible in some way, shape or form”. This is so vital to understand when designing for the Web across multiple devices. There are still far too many designers equating mobile with ‘on the go’, or ‘less content’.

Responding to the new ITV News website design Martin Belam wrote (emphasis mine):

I can’t begin to imagine the fuss there was when the design was first presented - no dateline, byline, standfirst, navigation, thumbnails. Just a stark list of headlines. But, when you are on the move, that is almost exactly what you are likely to want a lot of the time.

As far as I know the ITV News website doesn’t use any location or accelerometer data to detect “on the move” activity and adjust its design accordingly, I don’t know of any website that does, therefore this rationale — even if it leads to a good design — is flawed. I’m sure Martin is a very intelligent bloke but even he has fallen for the mobile fallacy. In regards to the ITV News design, I would tend to agree that removal of bylines and thumbnails (but maybe not dates) has improved the small-screen experience.

Stephanie Rieger has a great article: Mobile users don’t do that. She says:

Study after study reveals people use their mobile at home, while watching TV. People also use mobile devices for hours while waiting on trains and at airports. For each user who is in a hurry there will be another who stares intently at their device for 20-30 minute stints.

The fact is we simply cannot understand the user’s context based on their device. This type of assertion leads to design that break away from content parity. As I wrote last year:

Any kind of restriction or removal of content & functionality as a solution to improve usability on small-screens can only lead to user frustration; we’re trying to force [users] down a path they don’t necessarily want to take.

We need to avoid the categorisation of “mobile” and not use it as an excuse to escape difficult design problems. There are hundreds of web-enabled devices. They come in all shapes an sizes with a vast array of possible abilities and speeds — both in hardware and network connectivity. Use feature detection, not guess work.

In respect to designing websites for multi screen sizes, it’s really bloody difficult! Unless you start with an incredibly solid content strategy and hierarchy coupled with a thorough investigation into your users’ desired experience it’s almost impossible to avoid hiding content on small screens. The problem is not device limitations, it cannot be explained away with the mobile fallacy, the problem is a 1mb png of someone smiling at a salad.

Update: I should mention this post was not directly inspired by Martin’s article. Thankfully he wasn’t offended by me calling him out! There are far, far worse offenders out there!

It does make me think though, do we simply incorporate a need for brevity into our strategy, or do we actually look for ways to understand the users context more? Right now there doesn’t seem to be much we can do, but simply saying “don’t assume the user’s context” and pleading ignorance will never lead to further insight.

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