Yesterday, I stumbled into a conversation about mobile browsing with Peder Aadahl (of 168 Opportunities fame) and Curtis Jacob (of Hardy Boys Casefiles Encyclopedia fame), and it helped me articulate some of my thoughts on mobile a little bit better.
In a lunch-and-learn at work nearly two years ago, I argued that there is no mobile context. That, of course, was a reduction to make a point. The mobile context, by the way, is usually considered to be the usage pattern where a person is on the go and needs information quickly, like a person looking up a phone number for a restaurant or opening hours for a store. Obviously, this mobile context does exists.
The more nuanced point I should have made, however, is that we – the people who make websites – are currently unable to determine whether a user is in the "mobile context". The information we have about any given visitor is limited to the size of the screen. And the size of the screen does not equate to the current thinking of the visitor.
Sure, we can say that statistically a mobile user is more likely to be frantically searching for a phone number than a desktop user, I'll allow that. But that does not mean that all mobile users are only frantically searching for phone numbers, or that desktop users are never frantically trying to make the reservation they forgot to make last week.
The point of the website is that we're trying to reach the largest number of potential customer. That should include the users who are looking for in-depth information on their couches. And depending on the product, that should include the users who are excited to finally be able to afford a computer – even a 4-inch mobile one.
Expectations of users
Four years ago, before I had the internet on my phone, I was talking to a friend who did. He said, "Don't bother, it's not worth it: it sucks."
Four years ago, his viewpoint was probably valid. Companies either had no mobile website that rendered terribly on whatever random pre-iPhone device he had, or the mobile websites were a page or two with as little information as possible. That was the status quo.
And so, users were conditioned to think that they could use the "mobile web" for fast information, but if they wanted any real meat, they'd need to a real computer.
Times have changed. Mobile websites have improved. The iPhone showed us that a desktop website could be passibly rendered on a mobile device, and Android followed suite. Responsive web design was popularized.
And now, users are no longer conditioned to think that they can only get a good experience on the "desktop web". Users are beginning to expect that they can get a great experience wherever they are, with whatever device they have.
Improvements in the mobile web have changed expectations for everybody. Several years ago, it was completely acceptable to provide mobile users with sub-par experiences. These days, mobile users expect more.