Usability Reflections: Mobile Usability

I spend this week involved in purely scholastic endeavors: lots of reading about usability on mobile devices.

Admittedly, it’s hard for me to get excited about mobile design/development, particularly because there’s such a slim opportunity for me to work on anything that’d come anywhere near a mobile device in my day job. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least attempt to learn something this week. :)

An Interesting Find

One of the books we’re reading is Nielsen and Budui’s Mobile Usability, which rules in favor of the infamous m.—a separate site optimized for mobile devices and an easily accessed means of toggling between it and the full site:

The design challenge is to place the cut between mobile and full-site features 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.

True, we’ve seen some underpowered and poorly designed mobile sites that would hardly satisfy anybody’s mobile needs. But bad design that misinterprets a guideline is no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater and neglect the well documented guideline. (2013)

But what about Responsive Design?

The gist of most of the design and usability reading I’ve done over the years has been “m. bad, responsive good”. Naturally, it’s kind of jarring to see Nielsen poking holes in that. I dunno, maybe I’m in an echo chamber and need more diversity in my Twitter feed?

Of the traditional argument in favor of responsive design—that it saves you from having to maintain two different websites—Nielsen & Budui counter that you’re effectively building two UIs anyway:

Responsive design isn’t free in terms of interaction design or in terms of coding and implementation. For some sites, it might be cheaper than other implementation strategies; if that’s true for you, then do go that route.

But the most important point is that responsive design—if done correctly—does involve creating distinct UIs for each platform (2013)

I think one of the motivations behind responsive uber alle doctrine comes from the terrible execution of m.’s in the very recent past. I don’t think there exists a smartphone owner today that hasn’t at least once experienced the “Click here for Full Site” only to be thrown at the root index page of the full site, completely losing context of where they originally were (I’m looking at you, Washington Post). And let’s not forget session data that doesn’t transfer (e.g., shopping cart items, previously submitted form data, etc).


Nielsen, J., & Budiu, R. (2013). Mobile Usability. Berkely, CA: New Riders.

loading blog data