Gone responsive? Great! You’re halfway there. | by Jan Fagernas

Perhaps you sat up and took notice in August last year when Comscore published their report on mobile web use, and how mobile web browsing had officially overtaken traditional desktop browsing globally. If that didn’t rattle your cage enough, then maybe you heard the collective gasp of SEO specialists, marketing professionals and site managers around the world earlier this year when Google announced what was quickly dubbed “Mobilegeddon”- its initiative to penalise non-mobile-friendly sites in search rankings. No? Well, it happened.

As I write this, we are well past the tipping point. Mobile is not only on the rise, it is in fact the dominant method of browsing the web in today’s world. And as data costs plummet and connectivity speeds increase year-on-year, we’re only going to see this dominance grow. 

(Image credit: ScottGunn)

With the world so in love with their mobile devices, the discipline of responsive design has taken centre stage. If you’re not familiar with the concept of responsive design, here’s a two-sentence crash course: Responsive design aims to design a web experience or mobile application in a way that will scale and still (hopefully) make sense to the user regardless of the size of the screen they are viewing it on. In the case of a website, for example, you design just one layout and through the magic of CSS and in some cases a sprinkle of JavaScript, that layout adapts across PC monitor, laptop, tablet and phone. 

I’m not going to go into wearables here, as that presents a whole new set of challenges, or “opportunities” as those of us working in the marketing department would say. 

Suffice to say that given the overwhelming data around mobile web dominance, responsive design is where it starts. If your web site or web app is not currently responsive, then just take a look at your mobile bounce rates, and you will see the light. 

But, as you may have guessed from the title of this post, simply responsifying (is that a word?) may not be enough. We need to think about the user’s context.

Simplify for the win

In countries like India and Nigeria (to name but two) the proliferation of affordable smartphones and mobile devices has resulted in a significant portion of the populace going from having no internet directly to the mobile web. Yet, the majority of content they access have been designed and optimized for desktop browsing. And yes, this includes sites subscribing to the responsive design discipline. For a company with global reach, like the one I represent, this presents an interesting set of dilemmas.

Regardless of the overwhelming evidence against designing websites for desktop, many of us still fall into old patterns when we visualise, plan and create content for web. And even when we attain the discipline and presence of mind to put the mobile user first, we still fall into the trap of assuming that the mobile experience we enjoy is the same for every mobile user. It simply isn’t so. 

To paraphrase fellow UX designer Joel Marsh,  simply responsifying (I’m just gonna make it a word now) our desktop experience into a mobile breakpoint may in some cases be like trying to stuff a marshmallow into a piggy bank.

Content architecture and optimisation is vital if we want to provide a seamless user experience for our friends in, say, Papua New Guinea (89% of web pages viewed on mobile)  who just want to find out about our latest offering. In places where data costs are still a significant barrier to mobile web browsing, zeroing in on our user journeys is key. 

The quicker the user can get to the things they’re looking for, the more they will love you for it. In mobile, this requires a degree of brutality. It means getting rid of all the “nice to haves” and focusing purely on the things your data is showing to be most meaningful to the user. 

I hear my inner marketer whimpering as I write this, but the odds are that your user isn’t that interested in your latest campaign or the next conference you’re sponsoring. Even video content is a usability headache with mobile data connections (please, no auto-play!). When we design for a mobile audience, we need to be aware that any loss of user confidence is amplified as every unnecessary tap is an assault on their data plan.

Designing a solid mobile web experience is a game of seconds. More often than not, the user is on your site looking for something very specific, looking to perform an action. If they can’t do this in those first critical seconds, or worse, if the page hasn’t even loaded within 2-3 seconds of the user landing there, then they will probably go and do something more meaningful, like check their Tinder. 

So we need to simplify. Cut through the clutter. Use data. Decrease page load times. Rinse. Repeat. My inner marketer is digging a hole for himself right now. 

This does not, however, mean that the experience need be utterly Spartan in nature. There is creative opportunity here! People love little delighters. The more of these you can bring in whilst maintaining that delicate mobile optimisation balance, the more love you’ll receive. And even though we have lovely methods like progressive enhancement to lean on in times of utter despair, the true goal in putting mobile first should be to provide the same experience across all screens. 

The upside of simplification is that if it works in the most challenging network conditions, it will most likely also drive desired outcomes in conditions of more advanced connectivity. Introducing limits to our playing field forces us to get more creative with the space we have and re-examine methods we are so used to applying when designing content. 

My inner marketer seems to have perked up again. 

About the Author: 

Jan Fagernäs is Head of Creative for the Microsoft Mobile Devices website, frequently traversing the fine lines between Design, UX and content. He began his career as a digital creative back when Flash was all the rage. After spending a number of years in the world of advertising, he returned to his digital roots and currently spends the majority of his time obsessing over usability studies, conversion rates and load times.

Jan is speaking at Interact London, a two-day conference on UX, IA and design held at The British Museum on 20-21 October 2015. Book your place at the event today >>

Add a comment

Fields marked with an asterisk (*) are mandatory.