The mobile phone dilemma


There has been much discussion over how we might improve content for mobile readers. But what we read less about are the issues faced by mobile phone users and how they respond to content. For some content publishers there are now genuine concerns about delivering to this platform at all.

Let’s get specific, and consider specific information tasks. What device would you choose if:

  • you were on a train and wanted to check a shop’s opening time
  • you want to consider the detailed complexities of starting your own business
  • you want to immerse yourself into researching the purchase of a new car
  • you want to complete an online passport application
  • you want to compare insurance policies from several providers
  • you want to look at pictures of a holiday destination

Apart from the first one - your first choice would probably not be a mobile phone. But if you happened to be on a train, or have a few minutes waiting time out of the office you might just use your phone even if it’s only to see what’s available.

Google, in a presentation entitled ‘The New Multi-screen world’, has compiled many interesting facts (well worth checking out as there is other useful data in this!).  The pdf suggests that about 60% of mobile phone readers will divert to a larger screen to complete a reading task (depending on its nature).

From my own experience, I know that there are things that I don’t want to do on a mobile phone:

  • have a serious lengthy read
  • carry out complex keyboard entry
  • do a lot of navigation linking
  • view side-by-side tabular information
  • look at detail on quality images
  • click on links placed close together
  • click through nine pages to reach your information
  • be faced with lots of irrelevant graphics and icons
  • be hindered by loss of signal on a moving train
  • have to access a pdf or Word document for my information
  • wait ages for information to download (most people abandon after 6-10secs)

Then some mobile websites have serious usability issues, such as not being able to resize small text.

comprehension at 50%

It was back in 2011 and Nielsen Norman group identified that comprehension is cut by half for mobile phone readers: http://tinyurl.com/curdnoq For some publishers of important information this fact alone may be a risk too far.

Sales of tablets and phablets are on a steep rise. This being partly caused by people’s frustration of trying to read information on mobile phones.

 In the ecommerce mobile survey (Monetate Q1 2013 Ecommerce Quarterly) we find that web access by tablet was 10.58% in the first quarter of this year (up from 5.95% in 2012) and smartphone 10.44% (up from 5.42%).

Most tablets display websites perfectly well. And yet companies are investing heavily on responsive and adaptive technologies which only benefits the mobile phone users - 10% of their readers. And of these, Google suggests that 60% will opt to read the material later on a larger screen.

At the same time, such software will compromise the large screen version through use of non-optimised ‘on the fly’ design that responsive design delivers. There is no chance to preview and fine tune content for the different platforms - such as headlines that run to three lines, conflicting adjacent graphics, content that gets lost ‘below the fold’ etc.

phones only 33% as effective
The Monetate survey goes on to say that sales conversion rates on a smartphone are one third of those of traditional or tablet devices. So, if this reflects the effectiveness of all content, it could be argued that we need to positively discourage access by mobile phone!

This is especially true of the luxury products where pictures and lengthy copy are important in the persuasion process. But the same might apply to charities. Also for local government that needs to engage parents to consider child foster care, become school governors, etc. The same applies on intranets when you are trying to engage and motivate staff.

So is it worth investing in responsive or adaptive technologies to benefit less than 5% of your total web audience who want to read right through a longer article on a mobile phone? The ROI doesn’t make sense.

I have found no evidence that the clearer text presentation that these technologies bring makes any significant difference. It seems that screen size and the other inherent weaknesses of mobile phones are at the root of the problem.

In my view we should design for the reader of larger screens and put consideration for the mobile phone user further down the pecking order. A better investment in resources would probably be to improve the quality and readability of the web content itself.


  1. kilobox reblogged this from writingfortheweb and added:
    I disagree, generally. We can debate the stats, but people are making big purchases on good mobile sites (and apps) and...
  2. robotjane reblogged this from writingfortheweb and added:
    I completely disagree with every point of this article. Starting with the assumptions embodied in the stock photo of the...
  3. writingfortheweb posted this