The ‘Mobile’ Web

One thing that really bugs me is when I encounter an ‘mobile optimized’ website on my iPhone/iPad. I hate these sites because they are akin to going into a Ferrari dealership to see a Ferrari and instead only getting to see a Mercedes, that some guy traded in — you feel screwed over.

What’s more annoying is when these sites don’t give you the option of viewing the ‘full-site’ — how stupid must you be to not even allow that? Then you come across sites that throw up notifications every place they can to let you know that they (in all their genius) have created a dedicated iPhone app for you — because that is much easier to use than following the link from Twitter.

The situation is pretty bad right now, but just when I thought it couldn’t get worse the quality “journalism” that is the New York Post, up and decides that their users must use the native iPad app instead of being allowed to see the site in Safari on the device. So now if you follow a Post link from Twitter you are basically screwed, having to manually find that link in the iPad app — or more likely moving on to better publications.

Why

What possible reason is there to create these ‘optimized-experience’ for mobile devices, when the very nature of the web browsers that current mobile devices are equipped with are explicitly designed to work with sites as they currently are?

Let’s take a look at some advantages of each “solution”.

Advantages

Native Apps
  • Run faster and don’t require 100% of page elements to be loaded over the web.
  • Full of hype, which excites people.
  • Opens your site to a new market for discovery (via App Stores).
  • Can do things that you can’t do with a website (e.g. uploading from camera roll).
Mobile-Optimized
  • Theoretically loads faster.
  • The user doesn’t have to double tap to ‘zoom’ in on areas. (Theoretically)
  • Content can specifically be formatted for the screen the user is using. (Again, theoretically.)
‘Full-Site’
  • Easier on the web site owner.
  • Instant recognition that the user is in the right place.
  • Users are comfortable with the layout and don’t have to re-learn how to use the site.
  • Cheapest option.

Disadvantages

Native App
  • Expensive and a resource hog for the web site owner. (By way of time to make it and funds to make the app.)
  • Twitter and Email links don’t open in the app.
  • Most content driven sites (blogs) don’t offer a compelling reason to use the app over the website, or an RSS reader.
  • Can lead to user confusion.
‘Mobile-Optimized’
  • Can lead to user confusion of whether they are at the correct site.
  • Often less content/features are shown.
  • Doesn’t always look great on every device outside of the iOS sphere.
  • Many users prefer the full-site experience.
Full-Site
  • Not everything that a standard ‘full’ web browser renders will render on mobile devices.
  • Likely the slowest loading option.
  • User must scroll and zoom in and out more.

Just Leave Well Enough Alone

The issue isn’t that it is hard to build for mobile, but that it is unnecessary at this point to port your website for mobile devices. If you really find it necessary use responsive design from the outset, or at the very least give me an option to go to the full site.

What is clear: forcing users to use a crappy mobile ‘theme’ for your fancy blog is just silly and unnecessary.

A note: If your site tries to force me to use anything other than the full-site you run the risk of me not coming back to your site.

UPDATE: A couple of good points brought up by Sean Sperte on Twitter. Mainly that I am talking mostly about designs that are made as substitutes for the full site and not designs made as alternates for the full site — an important distinction that I felt I did not make clear. Lastly that there must be different standards for web apps than for non-web apps.

Originally posted for members on: June 23, 2011
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