Pretty Simple: web, digital, social

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.

This guy is certainly in no rush

This guy is certainly in no rush

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

Thanks Google, but I was actually only passing through...

Thanks Google, but I was really only just passing through…

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

More people are abandoning desktops

More people are abandoning desktops

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?

Photo credits: Elmo on a mobile phone by Ed Yourdon. Lazy phone user by William Ward. Abandoned PC by Jacob Whittaker. All used under the Creative Commons licence.

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5 Responses to What is a mobile web user anyway? Top 5 assumptions to avoid

  1. Sarah says:

    Thanks for sharing this link in the comments to my own post on responsive design and structured content (this post for those interested).

    You’re right that it seems we’re in agreement about quite a few of the points around the issue.

    The one thing I would raise is that I don’t think ‘mobile’ should be interchangeable with ‘smartphone’ as I believe it’s a much wider term than that. Tablets are the most common other device under the ‘mobile’ heading but perhaps this will change over time with things like wearable internet coming in to the mainstream.

    But responsive design, understanding not assuming and structured content are great foundations on which to build digital information suitable for all., whatever their need or situation.

  2. James says:

    You’re right – “mobile” covers a whole manner of devices – I like to ask people if they think their website is ready for the iWatch, just to see their reaction :)

  3. Hi James, I wasn’t at Better Connected this year, I had to duck out because of prior engagement but I would have been running a round table on web content matters.

    I agree with your theme in this blog. Coincidentally, I have recenly published a blog on the same lines: ‘Forget adapting for mobile phones. A provocative title perhaps but designed to pull people up in their tracks and rethink their approach.

    There are times a council needs to engage and persuade its audiences – and the mobile phone will actually reduce the effectiveness to a third of that of a large screen website. Responsive websites also damage the effectiveness of material – because the designer / web author cannot fine tune how elements relate to each other. Automation will lead to second rate viewing experience and response rate.

    I have trained staff at 40 councils over the last 13 years, including some in Scotland – so I am familar with the territory you work in. I have just completed training 200 staff at East Sussex County Council. By the way, I regularly train in Edinburgh (last there 30 May). I have even judged Edinburgh Councils’ web work in the past.

    Keep up the excellent postings.



  4. Nigel Peck says:

    Very nice article James, all makes perfect sense and well put together. Thanks.

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