Mobile Usability

** Mar252013

Mobile Usability by Jakob Nielsen and Raluca Budiu is a disappointing book with few real insights and some usability problems of its own.

“Apps are Best”?

The authors correctly identify one of the major questions facing website owners today: “Should you produce a mobile website or develop special mobile apps?”. Though they make an allowance that the answer will shift in the future, their answer is shockingly categorical:

“As of this writing, there’s no contest: Ship mobile apps if you can afford it.” (p. 34)

If this statement were under the heading “Current Mobile Usability”, one could still argue against it (if an iPhone user lands on your website, only to be greeted with an option to either download your mobile app or wrestle with a site designed for a 1024×768 deskop screen, that is not a good user experience). It is actually under the headline “Current Mobile Strategy: Apps Best” [emphasis my own]. Yet it contains no discussion of the myriad other considerations involved in mobile strategy, apart from usability, such as:

  • Findability: A website, and content and features within a website, are more discoverable than an app. There is no such thing as “deep linking” into a native app.
  • Maintenance: A mobile site requires only a minimum of browser-specific code compared to writing entirely separate applications for iPhone and Android (and oh wait, now Windows Phone as well, and whatever platform emerges next). Obviously, maintaining many codebases is more difficult than maintaining just one.
  • Cost: Both of the above considerations factor into the much higher cost of developing native apps. Not only do you have to develop the same app 3 or more times over, you have to spend a great deal of money on marketing and promotion because it’s not just out there on the open internet.
  • Domain: Most importantly, the choice between native app and mobile website will be different for different types of sites, from e-commerce to online applications to content sites.

To their credit, the authors state that “In the future, the cost-benefit trade-off for apps versus mobile sites will change.” But the fact is, for many types of websites, they are wrong now.

Poor Information Architecture

For a book on usability, parts of it are poorly structured, leaving the reader lost and disoriented. Chapter 2, entitled “Designing for the Small Screen”, for example, contains the sections “Download Times” and “Early Registration Must Die”, neither of which are related to the size of a device’s screen. The chapter also contains 2 case studies. One, though several pages long and touching on multiple facets of mobile user experience, is awkwardly stuck into the middle of the chapter, in a sub-section titled “Wasted Mobile Space”. The other is in its own dedicated section at the end of the chapter but mostly concerns the aforementioned “early registration”. A much better structure would be:

  1. Here are various usability issues associated with limited screen size
  2. Here are possible solutions
  3. To wrap up and really drive our points home, here’s a case study or two

Few valuable nuggets

Many of the recommendations in Chapter 4, “Writing for Mobile”, while important, are not new, and not unique to mobile. “Omit needless words” is chapter five of Steve Krug’s fantastic book Don’t Make Me Think, which came out in 2000. The authors of Mobile Usability similarly encourage sites to strip out “filler” and “fluff”.

While I don’t accuse it of being filler, the nearly 3 pages in this section discussing whether to include bylines — a few characters in the scope of an entire article — on mobile, seems excessive.

A more valuable section is “Mini-IA: Structuring Content”, but here again the material is light on analysis and recommendations. It starts auspiciously:

“Often it’s better to break up information into multiple units rather than using an overlong linear flow…present these multiple united across a few pages or use a within-page navigation system, such as tabs or carousels.” (p. 123)

I thought what would follow would be discussion of a problem every mobile web developer faces: a lot of information, a small screen. For example, how successfully do users discover and navigate tabbed content? Are collapsible sections a viable option on mobile devices? How well do swipable carousels work?

I was sorely disappointed to not find any further mention of these various ways of structuring and presenting content on small-screen devices.


Interaction design for mobile devices is a new and rapidly-developing field. I hoped Mobile Usability would be an early exploration of challenges faced by users of mobile websites and apps, along with evaluation of possible solutions. The book fell far short of my expectations.

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Author(s)Jakob Nielsen, Raluca Budiu
PublisherNew Riders

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