At yesterday’s Building Perfect Council Websites event in Birmingham, I chaired a discussion about what we really mean when we talk about our websites’ “mobile users”. This expands on some thoughts I recently blogged about the new mobile standard that has been introduced to the annual Better connected review of council websites. It was also prompted by a number of assumptions I’ve seen some organisations make about this group of users, which appear to be informing some potentially damaging decisions about what kinds of web experience to offer (or not offer) on mobile devices.
Here, then, are my top 5 assumptions about mobile users which I think we should be avoiding.
1. Don’t assume they’re in a rush
I’ve heard it be said that mobile users want info fast – they’re in a rush and want to complete the task and move on. Yet we know that mobile phones are high among the things people use to kill time – maybe when travelling, waiting for friends, standing in queues, laying in bed, even on the toilet. These users may not be in quite the rush we may think they are.
And even if it is true of visitors to our websites, are desktop users any different? No one wants an online task to take longer than it needs to, whatever device they’re using.
By all means keep things simple, reduce clutter, redesign online forms to reduce the required input, and consider the most popular tasks to help people get to stuff quickly. But this should be part of a universal approach towards streamlining all of your web presence, not a separate exercise in retaining your mobile customers’ attention.
2. Don’t assume they want location-specific info
One of the really powerful things about mobile devices is that they can tell us roughly where the person is – we can then use this to deliver all sorts of useful content built around that fact – for example, local news, locations of nearby services and the quickest routes to them.
But we mustn’t force this on the user. When I’m travelling around the UK (usually by train), the Google Now feature on my phone tends to go a bit mad telling me about nearby services, the weather, deals on hotels etc. But I’m usually just passing through the town that my phone is trying to promote – my phone has detected my location and wrongly assumed I want info about it. Ten minutes later, I’ll probably get another load of info about the next town on the train line.
Don’t get me wrong – I love what Google Now is trying to do, and it often works splendidly. But the point is that location doesn’t always tell us something useful about the user and their motivations and needs.
3. Don’t assume they’re on the move
People browse the web on a mobile in all sorts of places – on public transport, waiting in queues, at work, in cafes or (most commonly) at home. See this slide from a talk I did for Socitm, taking stats from Google’s Our Mobile Planet:
Assuming that people are actually mobile when using a mobile can be damaging if we then start to think about these users in these terms and change what we’re offering them in an attempt to preempt what someone “on the move” might want.
4. Don’t assume they all have the latest smartphone
An obvious one but all too often forgotten, especially when people become desperate to develop an iPhone app because it’s the “trendy thing to do”. Not everyone has an iPhone! These slides from an excellent presentation “rethinking the mobile web” by Bryan Reiger sums it up nicely:
5. Don’t assume they have another choice
Related to the last point – we’re seeing an increase in the number of people whose mobile device is the main or only way for them to connect to the web. Consider the homeless guy in the slides above. I’ve also spoken to disability experts who tell me that some users are abandoning their PCs and moving to smartphones because the accessibility features (especially on iPhones) are so much better and often free.
If mobiles are becoming people’s primary means of accessing your site, that means you need to take real care in not removing important content or functionality from the mobile experience. I’ve heard it argued that there are certain tasks people would “never want to do on a mobile device”. I spoke to a council recently who have been amazed at how many folk are trying to view planning applications on mobile devices – there was an assumption that few would want to do such a task on a mobile.
Flawed assumptions could be seriously excluding some of your users – remember: all we really know about our mobile visitors is that they happen to be using a mobile device. And what, in the end, does that really tell us?