Jakob Nielsen: 'mobile sites vs full sites' debate. The UXB view.

Jakob Nielsen's views on mobile sites have caused some controversy in the developer community. UXB look into what he said and whether he has a point or is off the mark.

Recently, one of the world's leading web consultants Jakob Nielsen discussed his thoughts on the mobile sites vs full sites debate, based on his company's - Nielsen-Norman Group - research. The post has been a subject of controversy since, with many people blasting the developer for an outdated view on mobile browsing.

[Image from Use It]

Nielsen stressed that companies should have a mobile optimised site, highlighting why full sites do not work for users on mobile devices. The user experience conversation has been going on for a while and, as any company that is aware of the growing numbers of mobile users will know, having a site optimised for smaller screens can bring about a very decent ROI.

Nielsen said:

"Good mobile user experience requires a different design than what's needed to satisfy desktop users. Two designs, two sites, and cross-linking to make it all work."

UXB's business developer Gabriela Lacaci gave her thoughts on mobile browsing.

"As a non-technical person, I believe we should have everything. That is, desktop website, mobile responsive design and apps. I find it time wasting to have to revisit the same sites through mobile browsers, when an app sits nicely on your screen. However, this can easily be worked around by making apps that solely redirect to a mobile optimised site. A mobile optimised site for mobile users visiting the main site is a definite for me. And yes, if necessary, have more than one if the main website is a mammoth for content and activity.

I say: if you have too much content, cut it, you are probably saying too much anyway. If it's complicated, simplify it. We want it to be easy and are likely to spend more the easier it is to get to the checkout page. Personal conclusions? Apps, even if just to link to, and tablet/mobile optimised for users of these. As for desktop, maintain older versions for now but don't invest in them, instead phase into responsive designs. And please remember, I am not a technical person.

As a non-technical person, Gabriela is a voice of the public, even though her digital savvy allows her to articulate it much better than most. She realises there is a noticeable difference in experience when browsing a site optimised for mobile. Gabriela also indicates her liking for apps, because of the convenience of hitting the site instantly, rather than dealing with loading time.

So yes, Nielsen was spot on in his assessment that there has to be a different design for mobile users, including cutting out unnecessary content and taking into consideration 'fat thumbs'. What the web design community isn't happy about however, is his inability to mention responsive web design, eliminating the need for two different sites.

As conversations continued online, web designer Josh Clark labelled Neilsen's advice on mobile as "just 180-degrees backwards." Clark continues to state that many people use mobiles as their only access to the Internet, stressing that users should not be patronised and offered a limited experience or forced to browse a full site on a tiny screen.

"When you see a 'full desktop site' link on your phone, you're looking at an admission of failure."

Clark argues that building separate sites for different platforms during an era when new devices - with differing resolutions, screen sizes and portability - hiting the market every week is poor strategy. There is also the issue with separating mobile and full site URLs. According to Clark,

"[Nielsen's] suggestion that there should be a distinction between desktop and mobile website URLs is damaging, too. Any piece of content should have one address on the web, not several. When I'm on a phone, that content should be formatted appropriately for the small screen, and when I'm on a tv-based browser, it should be formatted appropriate for the giant screen. But the URL – the 'uniform resource locator' – should be uniform across devices, one place to go no matter what I'm using to browse.

Nielsen was given the opportunity to respond to the large amount of criticism on the same site, in an interview with Tanya Combrinck. When he was questioned about his apparent neglect to mention RSW, Nielsen response was rather baffling.

"...I was writing about user experience, not implementation. As mentioned above, responsive design is one of the ways to achieve different user interfaces for different devices. It should be up to the engineers to determine the most efficient way of achieving the user experience goals. All we usability people should decide is how the site should work for users, not how this is implemented."

It seemed apparent that he was talking about implementation in his blog post, but now he is arguing that it was about user experience. Was he only talking about user experience? Does implementation not affect the user experience? Surely, if implementation became so hard to maintain because of several sites for different platforms, it would directly affect the user... and their experience!

When reading the interview, it feels as if Nielsen is backtracking. He even goes as far as to give negative comments on RSW design, ironically, because as Mat Marquis'

Website that works equally well on desktop/mobile announces that websites can’t work equally well on desktop/mobile: http://t.co/rBX9CRO3

— Mat Marquis (@wilto) April 10, 2012 ">Tweet points out, the very platform Nielsen used to ignore RSW was responsive!

UXB's experience manager Nick Smith uses his expertise to articulate where we at UXB felt Nielsen went wrong:

"I agree with him that a desktop site is often not suitable to mobile. However, I think his approach to always have mobile separate from desktop is flawed. My approach would be to start with desktop functionality and work out how (if) it translates to mobile.

This is a quite a complex conversation that he's boiled down to a binary decision. His approach doesn't work in the real world. This post seems solely about the user experience, but I think he's not researched well enough if he doesn't take new technology into account (he doesn't explore responsive techniques at all). A friend in UX recently told me he's not sure he can keep up with all of the new technologies in web design. He was staggered at the pace of change and the way it affects his work.

I think Jakob is suffering from this."