The Myth of Mobile Context

There continues to persist the perception that people who use mobile devices to connect to your website have different needs from when they connect to your website with a desktop/laptop (large screen). I often hear this suggested by mobile design “experts” and other UX professionals as well as by developers and product owners. It is based on the premise that since people are on the move when using their mobile devices that they are only in need of features and functionality that meet this “mobile” context. The inference is the mobile experience then needs to be different from your home/work needs from the same site. This is a wholly unsubstantiated and erroneous premise and one that designers should discard if they intend to create great mobile experiences.

Debunking the myth

To debunk this myth lets explore what is the “mobile” context. Research indicates that 68% of smart phone use occurs in the home.1 This makes sense as the average commute world wide is between 30 to 60 minutes (one way).2 Another frequent location where people use their mobile device is at the work place. In some countries like the US, a majority of people are driving while commuting which further restricts actual “mobile” usage while commuting. This leaves plenty of time both at home and work to be using a device while comfortably seated in one place as opposed to “on the go”.

There are certainly times when people will be using their mobile device while on the go as that is part of the convenience of the small form factor of the device itself. However, this is an exception to the use not the driving factor. To suggest that people won’t need or can’t use certain functionality on mobile because they are “on the go” is based on an incorrect assumption. Take an example from Amazon who at one time removed the “forgot password” feature from sign-in on mobile with disastrous results for their support center. 3 This is not to say that there aren’t plenty of constraints to design for a great mobile experience, just that the “on the go” context should not mean removing features and functions.

Real constraints for mobile

So what are the real constraints for mobile design that affect the context of their use? First there is the small screen, in fact the small screen challenge is not just needing to make a design work on a small screen, you need to design for multiple variations of small screens. 4 You also need to account for orientation where the layout needs to respond to both portrait and landscape dimensions. For example, you can not have a nav bar with more than 4 or 5 items visible and at the same time have some content also visible within a small screen. This means you will need to put some or all the nav items under a menu. The most common pattern is to use a “hamburger” icon. I do not want to debate the efficacy of that at this time, but the main concern is you can not have everything visible the same way on a small screen as you can on a larger screen.

In your effort to accommodate small and varying screen sizes you also need balance the need for larger links, buttons and other interaction elements to support touch interaction. The mouse pointer on the desktop affords two benefits over touch; First it has the precision of being 1 pixel in size when clicked and another is that you can see visibly and exactly what is directly under the point. It can be very frustrating to use a site on mobile where links, buttons and other interaction elements are too close together. This can sometimes be overcome by zooming in, if the user-scalable meta-tag has not been disabled. One of my pet-peeves for mobile design aside from omitting features and functions are sites that disable the user-scalable/zoom feature.

Another major influence on designing for a mobile experience is network speed. While you might assume that people would access their high-speed wifi network at home, this is not always the case. Some people do not have high-speed internet at home. This is particularly true in developing countries, but it can also be true in many places in the US/UK & Europe as well. You might also think that most people have LTE cellular access if they do not have wifi, but this is also not always true. I previously worked in a downtown Chicago office where due to the location and height of the floor we were on, many people had trouble getting even poor signals for their mobile devices. This is where many responsive sites fail with bloated frameworks that make both the mobile and desktop experiences slower.

You also need to deal with device processing limitations as well. Again, while smart phones today are many times more powerful than desktop computers from years ago, there is still a significant difference between the power of current desktop/laptops and many mobile devices. So not only does it take time to download a webpage with all the images and scripts and resources, the browser then slows down, freezes, or even crashes because it is unable to handle all the processing needed to render the page. To be fair the worst contributor to this are mobile ads which are not typically part of many sites. However if the site you work on has ads then this can also negatively affect the experience.


Having said all that, you will likely benefit from making your mobile design different from your desktop design. In fact you should take advantage of any capabilities a device offers to create the best experience. It may be that mobile devices offer a capability like location awareness, which is not available on desktop, that will allow you to add a great new feature. However, the basic support for a great experience should be the same on mobile and desktop regardless of capabilities.

To truly understand what people need from your website, you should be conducting research into what is most important for the people your site is supporting. This can take the form of surveys and/or asking people during usability testing as well as checking your site analytics. Be careful though as site analytics are shaped by your current design. What this means is that people may be clicking or viewing something frequently only because it is in the way of what they are trying to accomplish.

If you find that people really do not need certain features or functions on your mobile version of the site, then they more than likely do not need it on the desktop/laptop as well. 5 Ultimately, don’t make assumptions about people’s needs for features and functions for mobile based on hypothetical “on the go” situations. It can be very frustrating to be on mobile and trying to do something that you know can be done on the regular site, but the folks in charge decided it was not important for “mobile”. Test your designs with the people who will use them just as you should be doing for your desktop/laptop designs.







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