It’s common today to hear people argue the following: Mobile users have increasingly high expectations for what they should be able to accomplish on their phones, so eliminating content or features will inevitably disappoint some people. It’s therefore better, the (flawed) argument goes, to serve the full site to everybody, including mobile users.

This analysis is flawed because it assumes that the only choice is between the full-featured desktop site and a less-featured mobile site. However, any mobile site that complies with the usability guidelines will provide links to the full site wherever features or content are missing, so users have access to everything when and if they need it.

The design challenge is to place the cut between mobile and full-site features in such a way that the mobile site satisfies almost all the mobile users’ needs. If this goal is achieved, the extra interaction cost of following the link to the full site will be incurred fairly rarely.

True, we’ve seen some under-powered and poorly designed mobile sites that would hardly satisfy anybody’s mobile needs. But bad design that misinterprets a guideline is no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater and neglect the well-documented guideline itself.

The correct analysis goes as follows:

  • For the vast majority of tasks, mobile users will get a vastly better user experience from a well-designed mobile site than from the full site.
  • For a small minority of tasks, mobile users will be slightly delayed by the extra click to the full site.

A big gain that’s experienced often will comfortably outweigh a small penalty that’s suffered rarely.

A second argument against the mobile site option is that you could just optimize the entire website for mobile in the first place. Then, giving mobile users the “full” site wouldn’t cause them any trouble. While true, this analysis neglects the penalty imposed on desktop users when you give them a design that’s suboptimal for bigger screens and better input devices (see sidebar on mouse vs. fingers). If desktop users were a minute minority this might be acceptable, but almost all websites get substantially more traffic (and even more business) from desktop users than from mobile users. So, while we do want to serve mobile users, we can’t neglect desktop users— who, after all, pay most of our salaries.

The basic point? The desktop user interface platform differs from the mobile user interface platform in many ways, including interaction techniques, how people read, context of use, and the plain number of things that can be grasped at a glance. This inequality is symmetric: mobile users need a different design than desktop users. But, just as much, desktop users need a different design than mobile users.

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