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The mobile context myth

At the most basic level, a mobile-friendly site is simply one that resizes itself to fit the screen it’s being viewed on. Images, text, and content are only as wide as the screen on your device.

For a while, it was quite popular to have a dedicated desktop experience, and a simpler, more lightweight version of your site specifically for mobile devices. The philosophy behind this approach was a belief that mobile users exist in a specific and limited context: busy, distracted, and focused on only one type of information.

In reality, that particular context is just one of many that can and do apply to mobile users.

Mobile Context is a Myth

In The Trouble With Context, the folks at Yiibu point out that mobile users aren’t always just looking for information. They’re also reading while commuting, entertaining themselves while they wait in line, or browsing the web while watching TV.

Google’s research found that it’s quite common for people to start a task on one device and then continue it later on another. If the layout and content of your website is different on smartphones than it is on desktops, it becomes much harder for people to resume tasks (and more likely that they’ll just abandon your site altogether).

Karen McGrane explains:

While you’re at work, you read a restaurant review for a new place you think sounds tasty. Come dinnertime, you grab your phone to pull up the address and location.

One night on your tablet, you’re browsing articles for a report you’re writing at work. Back at your desk the next day, you struggle in vain to remember what you searched for to find those articles. Why can’t you find them again?

Sound familiar? If you’re like most people, it probably does. Research from Google shows that 90 percent of people start a task using one device, then pick it up later on another device.

People now expect access to the same content on any device. Not being able to find content, or being able to find it but not access it, is incredibly frustrating for users.

Reducing Content

I had a discussion with a web developer who mentioned that for mobile users, he intended to share about 50-percent less content and reduce the steps in their checkout process to make it more efficient.

I think that’s a great idea, but I don’t think it should be limited to the mobile site.

If 50-percent less information is the right amount of information people need to complete their tasks, then you should only provide that 50-percent on all devices. And if visitors on laptops could use that additional information, why wouldn’t someone on a smaller screen want access to it, too?

Similarly, if you can process a checkout in just two or three steps instead of five, why wouldn’t desktop users benefit from that as well?

When less is less

Frank Chimero once wrote:

Some things are truly diminished when simplified.

I think there’s truth to that. It’s important not to simplify just for the sake of simplifying when thinking about mobile devices. If the content is important, it should be there for everyone. And if it’s not, it shouldn’t be there for anyone.