Jakob Nielsen’s dubious guidelines for mobile websites got a rise out of me this week. After conducting usability tests on hundreds of websites, his advice included these guidelines, all of which made me shudder:

  • Build a separate website for mobile
  • Cut features to eliminate things that are not core to the mobile use case
  • For removed content and features, link to the desktop site

I don’t doubt his research, but I do doubt its assumptions and conclusions. The notion that mobile should be a lite version of the “real” and complete desktop website is a popular one, but wow is it problematic. It makes a host of assumptions about what the mobile use case is that I find to be out of step with how smartphones are actually used.

So when .Net magazine sent me a note to ask me my thoughts about his recommendations, a quick email response turned into an email essay. The editors asked if they could publish my email as its own opinion piece, which they published under the uncomfortably provocative title, “Jakob Nielsen is wrong on mobile.” An excerpt:

Nielsen is confusing device context with user intent. All that we can really know about mobile users is that they’re on a small screen, and we can’t divine user intent from that. Just because I’m on a small screen doesn’t mean I’m interested in less content or want to do less.

Stripping out content from a mobile website is like a book author stripping out chapters from a paperback just because it’s smaller. We use our phones for everything now; there’s no such thing as “this is mobile content, and this is not.”

Read the rest of my thoughts and concerns here.

For what it’s worth, I do wholeheartedly agree with one of his recommendations, which is to defer secondary information to secondary pages. The web has made us skittish about extra clicks or taps, thanks to network latency. But in many cases, crafty caching, and pre-fetching reduce that problem so that there’s no latency between taps. Instead, you organizing screens for a single idea or action works well. Tap quality, in other words, is more important than tap quantity.

So, yeah, feel free to reprioritize content for different devices, but don’t start cutting content and features willy-nilly. Mobile isn’t a lesser platform than desktop; it’s just one of many platforms among equals.

Update: .Net posted Jakob Nielsen’s response to the criticism, and I’m afraid my mind isn’t eased. His counsel — “If users do want the longer and more complex information, they are always able to click through to the full site” — feels more like an admission of defeat than a content strategy. Also, his suggestion that user experience can be separated from technical implementation worries me. More than ever, UX designers have to have a sophisticated notion of the possibilities and drawbacks of various technical approaches in order to properly craft a stunning experience.

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