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Why using current user data to justify not optimizing for mobile is b*llshit

When chatting with clients about how a particular feature or component might work on a smaller viewport or a touch-screen device, they often respond with something like:

We don’t get many mobile users on our site today, so I don’t think it’s that big of a deal if this doesn’t work on a smartphone.

And based on the data, they’re right. They don’t have much mobile traffic. But they’re still completely, utterly wrong.

Your current data has a (major) bias

The problem is, their current site isn’t optimized for a mobile experience. In many cases, it doesn’t even really provide any mobile experience at all (beyond the fact that it’s accessible through a web browser and smartphones have those).

Imagine if you went to a grocery store, and there wasn’t enough parking. When you went inside, the aisles were tall, narrow, and confusingly laid out. The lighting sucked. And the cashiers? They weren’t just unpleasant. They wouldn’t even help you check out. You had to figure out how to use the register yourself, and if you couldn’t… well, this ain’t the store for you.

So you left, and went down the street. There was ample parking and clean, spacious aisles. There were tons of easy-to-find items, and a courteous, friendly staff. Where would you spend time?

That first store is what the not-optimized-for-mobile website is like. And why would anyone spend any time there when you’re basically telling them they’re not welcome?

Your analytics reflect your site’s design, not (just) your users’ desires

Sometimes, analytics do indicate that users prefer certain types of content over others. Or that certain visitors are more likely to make purchases than others. If you set your site up properly, account for all use cases, and test for them.

More often, though, your analytics indicate how your current design performs against demographics that you may or may not value.

So sure, you don’t get a lot of mobile traffic today. But that doesn’t inherently mean people don’t want your content on their mobile devices. It could just mean that you make it so hard for them that they give up and go somewhere else.

A case study

In 2011, I helped PAWS New England redesign their website.

At the time, they had a desktop-only site, and just 9-percent of their traffic came from mobile devices. Based on the data, I’d have been justified in saying that “our users don’t want this content on their smartphones.”

But we went with a responsive websites anyways, and mobile traffic grew to 25-percent of all traffic in the first 12-months.

Now, part of this growth was a general trend towards mobile web use. But not all of it. Smartphones weren’t new, and the iPhone had already been out for four years at this point. By making it easier for people to access content on their phones, they did.

Over the last four years, overall traffic to the site has grown by 500-percent. But mobile traffic? That’s grown by 2,700-percent. More than half of all traffic now comes from mobile devices, which are overwhelmingly responsible for the surge in growth.

Absolutely do use data to drive design decisions. But use it to test design choices, not just measure current user behaviors intentions. You might be missing out on tremendous growth opportunities.