Nielsen Misses the Mark on Mobile

Image of a laptop, tablet and smartphone showing the same content“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.” – Jakob Nielsen

“Interesting, but no.” – Me

It’s been a time of explosive growth for mobile internet use and healthcare websites are no exception.  We’ve seen average growth of 300% in mobile visits to hospital and health system Web properties! It’s no surprise, therefore, that we’re spending a lot of time exploring solutions for better serving mobile visitors.

Through that exploration, our understanding of mobile Web usage has evolved as devices have progressed and consumers have become increasingly savvy in their use of these tools.

So I was quite surprised to read the opening quote from Nielsen which feels like an outdated approach.

Reading through Nielsen’s writings on mobile, he makes the following observations:

  • Traditional websites are very difficult to use on mobile devices
  • Sites designed to be optimized for mobile devices don’t serve desktop users well
  • Both mobile and desktop users are best served (i.e. best able to complete tasks) by Web interfaces that are optimized to their personal use cases

All of which is very logical. From that, Nielsen concludes that you should have separate sites for mobile and desktop. Further, your mobile site should not only have an optimized user interface, but should cut features and content to support the mobile use case.

This is what Geonetric’s been doing for mobile visitors for the past several years.

Nielsen’s fundamental error is in what he believes the mobile use case to be, stating that if “done right,” paring down the site isn’t a problem because it will be built “in such a way that the mobile site satisfies almost all the mobile users’ needs. If this goal is achieved, the extra interaction cost of following the link to the full site will be incurred fairly rarely.”

By assuming that only a small subset of site content and functionality is needed, he’s still testing with the assumption that we’re surfing on our phones while driving in a car, one handed, with lousy bandwidth.

This is a risk of focusing too heavily on research in the lab. To balance, I’ve taken a look at how actual mobile visitors are using the sites of 30 health systems, grabbing usage data by topic then coding the results for comparison. From this, we get the following top ten areas:
Top Mobile Content
This doesn’t align at all with our expectations for the mobile use case! We’d expect mobile visitors to be looking for nothing but phone numbers, maps and directions. Certainly those things make the list, but there’s an equally strong desire for information on careers and the deep content areas of Services, Health Resources and the About section.

Let us therefore update our mobile use case. Site visitors want your site to be available from their mobile device. That’s it.

At the same time, I agree completely that the user interface should be optimized to the device. Nielsen indicates that we actually have more than two situations here. The ideal case is actually to have several sites designed for large tablets, small tablets, and smartphones. Again, I agree wholeheartedly.

We’re no longer constrained to an either-or scenario for site designs. Using the relatively new tools of responsive design offers a technical solution to this very problem.

A responsive design takes your website user interface and adapts it to the size and capabilities of the browser in which it is being presented. Is the screen large? Here are some big images across the top of the page. Do you have a mouse? Have some mouseovers. Will you support a swipe action? We’ll use that. The site will adapt to flipping the device from portrait to landscape and so forth.

Going forward, the right answer is to have one site that is optimized for any device visitors are using.

If you would like information about implementing a new site that supports responsive design, contact us.

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This entry was posted in Best Practices, Design, Mobile, Research, User Experience by Ben Dillon. Bookmark the permalink.
Ben Dillon

About Ben Dillon

Ben’s a big picture type of guy. He loves sharing new ideas in digital marketing, keeping a watchful eye on healthcare industry trends and seeing how it all intersects. A sought-after speaker, writer, blogger and current SHSMD board member, Ben’s an influential voice in healthcare marketing, helping organizations across the country embrace online strategies to engage health consumers. Combine his industry savvy with his background in software development and you can see why he’s also an important member of Geonetric’s software team, ensuring our content management system stays a step ahead of market needs. Ben holds a master’s degree in eBusiness and strategic management from the University of Iowa and a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering from the University of Michigan. When he’s not traveling and evangelizing, Ben enjoys cooking with his family and playing the Big House with the University of Michigan Alumni marching band.

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