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Vexing Viewports

“The Web is Agreement.” Jeremy Keith’s eloquent statement neatly summarizes the balance that makes it possible for us to build amazing things. Each week, new devices appear with varying screen sizes, pixel densities, input types, and more. As developers and designers, we agree to use standards to mark up, style, and program what we create. Browser makers in turn agree to support those standards and set defaults appropriately, so we can hold up our end of the deal.

This agreement has never been more important.

That’s why it always hurts when a device or browser maker does something that goes against our agreement. Especially when they’re a very visible and trusted friend of the web—like Apple.

You see, Apple’s newest tablet, the iPad Mini, creates a vexing situation: Its device-width viewport tag defaults to the same values as Apple’s original iPad (768x1024 pixels), even though the Mini's screen is physically 40 percent smaller. That means every button, graphic, link, and line of text on a web page on the iPad Mini appears tiny—even when we try to do the right thing and build flexible, multi-device experiences.

Two iPads, one too small.

But Cupertino isn’t the only culprit out there. This is a problem that’s been brewing since we started using the viewport—and it has to do with not just pixels, but our own practices as well. Let’s take a step back and understand what’s really causing today’s woes—and what all of us need to do about it.

The trouble with pixels

Today’s viewport woes can be traced right back to pixels—yes, those tiny elements we work with every day.

The first pixel challenge is quantity. The more pixels in the display, the more information can be displayed. But as these are physical pixels whose number can’t be altered after the fact, a second factor comes into play: the screen’s physical size.

Imagine two two-inch-wide displays (about the width of the iPhone), as shown below.

Two devices, each with a two-inch-wide display. The one on the right, at 640x960, would pack four times as many pixels into the same space as the 320x480 screen on left.

The first is 320x480 pixels, the second 640x960. This gives the second display four times as many pixels as the first, but fits all of them into the same physical space. This smaller pixel size results in content that is also smaller—making it crisper, but much harder to read as well.

This is exactly what happened on the Nokia E60. In 2005, most mobile phone displays were about an inch and quarter wide, with an average of 176 pixels in that width. But the E60, which sported a “huge” 352x416-pixel display, crammed twice the number of pixels into a similar amount of space. The result: A gorgeous, crisp—but often hard-to-read—display.

The E60 also introduced a now-familiar problem: how users would manage to surf “big” sites on a tiny device. Nokia’s solution was a new browser, the Mini Map. This browser behaved similarly to today’s smartphone browsers by first rendering the full-sized page, then scaling it to fit the available screen size. Superimposed onto this rendering was a transparent red box that could be repositioned using the device’s joystick. Clicking the joystick would zoom the content indicated within the box.

Enter viewports

Mini Map was probably one of the first commercial uses of a dynamic viewport—a construct designed to dynamically change the size or scale of the visible screen area in order to improve the user experience. But it was far from the last.

In 2007, Apple released the iPhone, a much larger device than the E60, but one with a similar problem. Even on a “huge” two-inch display, surfing the “real web” on an iPhone meant loading large pages onto a small device. Apple chose to solve this problem through a series of carefully orchestrated enhancements.

The first was the creation of a virtual viewport similar to the one Nokia designed for Mini Map. When encountering desktop websites, the browser would render them at their full size (based on a default canvas width of 960 pixels). It would then scale them down to fit the two-inch display. Users could interact with the page to scroll and zoom in on areas of their choice.

Apple didn’t stop there. It also developed a new viewport meta tag. Sites not using the tag would be rendered using the default, legacy-web viewport of 980 pixels. But developers who opted to use the tag could declare the viewport for their sites, including setting the width to the all-important device-width value. This value tells the browser, “please pick a width that fits this specific device’s screen best.”

Other mobile browser vendors were quick to follow Apple’s lead. Nowadays just about every mobile browser supports the viewport meta tag, including the device-width value. This provides us with an even playing field: It respects the efforts of those who take the time to adapt sites for the multi-device web, while those who haven’t yet made this transition still receive a “good-enough” default experience.

Mini problems

The value device and browser vendors assign to device-width is directly related to that device’s physical dimensions. Physically smaller devices need a smaller device-width value (which will result in larger content). Set a value that’s too large, and most content will be too small to comfortably read.

And that’s why Apple’s iPad Mini has a vexing viewport. It uses the same 768-pixel device-width as the regular iPad, even though its physical size is much smaller. One would expect to see a device-width more in line with those of similarly sized tablets like the BlackBerry PlayBook or second-generation Samsung Galaxy 7″—around 500 to 600 pixels, as shown in this chart.

Because of this device-width, web pages appear 27 percent smaller on the iPad Mini than they do on the Google Nexus 7 (calculated based on the relative size of device pixels)—all because Apple decided to describe the device’s viewport as 768 pixels.

Solving for content size

One of the first places this causes problems is in text: More pixels in a smaller space means that fonts sized in pixels will look correspondingly dinky.

Of course, many of us aren’t sizing in pixels anymore—we’re using relative dimensional elements like ems, right? Only, that doesn’t quite solve the problem this time.

When we use ems, we imply a certain trust that the browser’s baseline font size at the default zoom level—1em or 100 percent in unit parlance—is sane and readable. But that’s not always the case. The browser’s baseline font-size value (1em) roughly equates to a 16-pixel square. This ratio serves as a ligament that binds absolute and relative units, but it can vary from browser to browser.

On the iPad Mini, font-size at baseline is precisely 16 pixels. That may have worked fine when fewer pixels were packed into our screens, but on a dense display with an improperly defined viewport, that’s going to be uncomfortably small.

Not all browsers toe the 1:16 em-to-pixel line, though. The Kindle Touch’s browser, for example, has a high-density viewport, but adapts by using a 1:20 ratio, kicking the default font size up a few pixels for readability.

This might not fix all of iPad Mini’s viewport problems, but at least the content would be legible.

Three seven-inch tablets. Note the difference in rendering.

So why did Apple do this?

To understand why Apple would release a product with such a vexing viewport, we don’t have to look further than our own habits.

In the wake of the iPad’s initial release, web folk worldwide scrambled to adapt sites to look good on the new tablets. Somewhere along the way many of us collectively settled upon pixel-based notions of tablet-ness, and those notions often resulted in fixed, 1024x768-pixel layouts precisely targeted at these devices.

Were Apple to decrease the device-width value for the iPad Mini on account of its smaller physical size, it would guarantee a second scramble as existing tablet-adapted sites assuming a 1024x768 viewport suddenly looked unexpectedly wretched on the new device.

The responsibility here goes two ways. Browser makers need to provide reliable baselines of viewport and text sizing, yes. But we as implementers also need to stop grasping for pixel-perfect control over our layouts (the “control” is an illusion, anyway).

A way forward

The only way for us to move forward is together. As developers and designers, we need to hold up our end of the bargain and be mindful of how we do our work—and that means letting go of the notion of pixel precision once and for all. We need to earn the trust of browser makers so they hear us out when things just frankly aren’t right. We hope this article illustrates we’re trying to do the right thing. We hope browser makers acknowledge that and follow suit.

Standards and consistency are more important now than ever before. Please let browser makers and device manufacturers, like Apple, know that we rely on consistent and reliable decisions about default viewports and their zooming. We’re willing to hold up our end of the agreement, and we need them with us.

Let’s move into the future—together.

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We are pleased to present you with this excerpt from Chapter 1 of Content Strategy for Mobile by Karen McGrane, now available from A Book Apart. —Ed.

When we talk about how to create products and services for mobile, the conversation tends to focus on design and development challenges. How does our design aesthetic change when we’re dealing with a smaller (or higher-resolution) screen? How do we employ (and teach) new gestural interactions that take advantage of touchscreen capabilities? How (and who) will write the code for all these different platforms—and how will we maintain all of them?

Great questions, every one. But focusing just on the design and development questions leaves out one important subject: how are we going to get our content to render appropriately on mobile devices?

The good news is that the answer to this question will help you, regardless of operating system, device capabilities, or screen resolution. If you take the time to figure out the right way to get your content out there, you’ll have the freedom (and the flexibility) to get it everywhere. You can go back to thinking about the right design and development approaches for each platform, because you’ll already have a reusable base of content to work from.

The bad news is that this isn’t a superficial problem. Solving it isn’t something you can do in isolation, by sandboxing off a subset of your content in a stripped-down mobile website or app. The solution requires you to look closely at your content management system, your editorial workflow, even your organizational structure. You may need different tools, different processes, different ways of communicating.

Don’t despair. There’s even better news at the end of this rainbow. By taking the time now to examine your content and structure it for maximum flexibility and reuse, you’ll be (better) prepared the next time a new gadget rolls around. You’ll have cleared out all the dead wood, by pruning outdated, badly written, and irrelevant content, which means all your users will have a better experience. You’ll have revised and updated your processes and tools for managing and maintaining content, which means all the content you create in every channel—print, desktop, mobile, TV, social—will be more closely governed.

Mobile is not the “lite” version

It looks like you're on a train. Would you like me to show you the insultingly simplified mobile site?

—Cennydd Bowles (http://bkaprt.com/csm/15)

If people want to do something on the internet, they will want to do it using their mobile device. Period.

The boundaries between “desktop tasks” and “mobile tasks” are fluid, driven as much by the device’s convenience as they are by the ease of the task. Have you ever tried to quickly look up a bit of information from your tablet, simply because you’re too lazy to walk over to your computer? Typed in a lengthy email on your BlackBerry while sitting at your desk, temporarily forgetting your keyboard exists? Discovered that the process to book a ticket from your mobile was easier than using the desktop (looking at you, Amtrak!) because all the extra clutter was stripped away?

Have you noticed that the device you choose for a given activity does not necessarily imply your context of use?

People use every device in every location, in every context. They use mobile handsets in restaurants and on the sofa. They use tablets with a focused determination in meetings and in a lazy Sunday morning haze in bed. They use laptops with fat pipes of employer-provided connectivity and with a thin trickle of data siphoned through expensive hotel Wi-Fi. They use desktop workstations on the beach—okay, they really only use traditional desktop machines at desks. You’ve got me on that one.

Knowing the type of device the user is holding doesn’t tell you anything about the user’s intent. Knowing someone’s location doesn’t tell you anything about her goals. You can’t make assumptions about what the user wants to do simply because she has a smaller screen. In fact, all you really know is: she has a smaller screen.

The immobile context

Users have always accessed our content from a variety of screen sizes and resolutions. Data reported by SecureCube shows that in January 2000, the majority of users visited from a browser with an 800×600 resolution, but a significant minority (twenty-nine percent) accessed the site at 1024×768 or higher, with a smaller percentage (eleven percent) viewing the site at 640×480 (http://bkaprt.com/csm/16; fig 1.1). At that time, decisions about how best to present content were seen as design challenges, and developers sought to provide a good reading experience for users at all resolutions, discussing appropriate ways to adjust column widths and screen layouts as content reflowed from smaller to larger screens.

Figure 1.1

Fig 1.1: We have plenty of experience delivering content to a variety of screen resolutions. Why do we assume that mobile screens necessarily indicate a different context?

What you didn’t hear designers talking about was the “640×480 context” and how it differed from the “1024×768 context.” No one tried to intuit which tasks would be more important to users browsing at 800×600, so less important options could be hidden from them. No one assumed that people’s mindset, tasks, and goals would be different, simply because they had a different-sized monitor.

Why do we assume that mobile is any different?

Mobile tasks, mobile content

I recently departed Austin, Texas, traveling with three friends. Since we arrived at the airport a bit early, I wanted to lounge in the comfort of the United Club, away from the teeming masses. I felt it would be rude to abandon my friends to a similar fate outside, and so I wanted to know how many guests I could bring with me to the club.

A simple Google search should clear up this problem. Sure enough, I quickly found a link that seemed promising (fig 1.2).

Figure 1.2

Fig 1.2: Searching for “United Club Membership” shows that the content exists on the desktop site. But because the mobile website redirects the URL, users wind up on the homepage of the mobile site.

Alas, following the link to United Club Membership just took me to the homepage for mobile.united.com. When users search from a mobile device, United automatically redirects links from Google to its mobile website—without checking to see if the content is available on mobile. If the content doesn’t exist on mobile, the user gets unceremoniously dumped on the homepage of the mobile website. Mobile redirects that break search—how is that ever a good user experience?

Sure, there’s a link to the full desktop site, but that too just dumped me on the desktop homepage. I could try to use United’s internal site search, but I’d wind up pinching and zooming my way through several search result screens formatted for the desktop. And honestly: why should I have to? An answer that should take me one tap from the Google search results should not require searching and tapping through several pages on both the mobile and the desktop sites.

I went and asked the representative at the desk. (Correct answer: two guests.)

I don’t bring this up just because I want to shame United for wantonly redirecting links to a mobile URL when the content isn’t available on its mobile website. (That’s a terrible thing to do, but it comes after a long list of other bad things I’d like to shame United Airlines for doing.) No, I use this example to illustrate a common misconception about mobile devices: that they should deliver only task-based functionality, rather than information-seeking content.

Information seeking is a task

Luke Wroblewski, in his book Mobile First, tells us that Southwest Airlines is doing the right thing by focusing only on travel tasks (fig 1.3):

The mobile experience…has a laser-like focus on what customers need and what Southwest does: book travel, check in, check flight status, check miles, and get alerts. No room for anything else. Only what matters most.

Figure 1.3

Fig 1.3: The Southwest Airlines iPhone application only has room for what actually matters…if what matters doesn’t involve looking up information.

Mobile experts and airline app designers don’t get to decide what “actually matters.” What matters is what matters to the user. And that’s just as likely to be finding a piece of information as it is to be completing a task.

Eighty-six percent of smartphone owners have used their phone in the previous month to look up information—whether to solve a problem, settle an argument, get up-to-the minute information such as traffic or sports scores, or to decide whether to visit a business like a restaurant (http://bkaprt.com/csm/27). Don’t believe me? Look at your own search history on your mobile device—you’ve probably tried to answer all sorts of questions by looking up information on your phone.

The Southwest Airlines desktop website includes information about their baggage policies, including policies for checked bags, carry-ons, and pets, as well as lost and found, delayed baggage, and a variety of other traveler information, such as what to do if you lose your ticket, need to rebook, or your flight is overbooked. It even includes information for parents looking to book travel for unaccompanied minors, and how Southwest accommodates disabled flyers and the elderly.

The mobile experience does not. Who are we to say that this content doesn’t actually matter?

It’s fine to optimize the mobile experience for the most common tasks. But that doesn’t mean that you should exclude valuable content.

Mobile is social

Have you ever clicked on a link from Facebook or Twitter on your phone? How about a link someone sent you in an email?

Figure 1.4

Fig 1.4: “No mobile content found. Would you like to visit the desktop version of the site?” asks The Guardian. Can you guess the answer?

Of course you have. Sharing content with our friends and colleagues is one of the bedrock ways we communicate these days. Users don’t distinguish between accessing email, Facebook, Twitter, or other social services on the desktop or on mobile—they choose them fluidly, depending on which device they’re closest to at the time. In fact, as of June 2012, nearly twenty percent of Facebook members use it exclusively on mobile (http://bkaprt.com/csm/28).

If your content isn’t available on mobile—or provides a bad reading experience—you’re missing out on one of the most compelling ways to get people to read it. Is your site littered with icons trying to get people to share your content? If your readers just get an error message when they tap on shared content, all the effort you put into encouraging social sharing is wasted (fig 1.4).

Designing for context

“Context” is the buzzword everyone throws around when talking about mobile. At the South by Southwest Interactive conference in 2011, the panel called “Designing for context” was the number one must-see session, according to .net Magazine (http://bkaprt.com/csm/29).

The dream is that you can tailor your content for the user’s context—location, time of day, social environment, personal preferences. Based on what you know about the user, you can dynamically personalize the experience so it adapts to meet her needs.

Today, we use “designing for the mobile context” as an excuse to make mobile an inferior experience. Businesses want to invest the least possible time and effort into mobile until they can demonstrate return on investment. Designers believe they can guess what subset of information or functionality users want. Everyone argues that they’re designing for the “mobile use case.”

Beware of personalized interfaces

Presuming that the “designer knows best” when choosing how to deliver personalized content or functionality is risky. We’re notoriously bad about predicting what someone will want. Even armed with real data, we’re likely to make incorrect assumptions when we decide to show some things and hide others.

Microsoft Office tried this strategy in the late 1990s. Office 97 offered many new features and enhancements, which made the user interface more complex. Long menus and dense toolbars gave the impression that the interface was “bloated” (http://bkaprt.com/csm/30). (Sound like any desktop websites you know?)

In response, Microsoft developed “personalized menus” and “rafted toolbars” which showed the most popular items first (fig 1.5). Although Microsoft had good data and a powerful algorithm to help determine which items should be presented first, it turned out that users didn’t like being second-guessed. People found it more frustrating to go through a two-stage process, hunting through multiple menus to find what they were looking for. Personalized menus violated one of the core principles of usable design: put the user in control.

Figure 1.5

Fig 1.5: Personalized menus in Office 97 attempted to prioritize only the options Microsoft thought users wanted. They were a failure.

Now imagine that instead of clicking a chevron at the bottom of the menu to expand it, the user has to click a link to “full desktop website” and then hunt around in the navigation while squinting at a tiny screen. If your website’s mobile version only offers a subset of your content, you’re giving your users the same frustrating experience. Only much worse.

You don’t have good data

Microsoft had a ton of data about which options people used most frequently. They developed a complex algorithm to present the default “short” menu based on the items people were most likely to want, based on years of history and research with multiple iterations of their product. And they still made mistakes.

The choices you make about which subset of content you want to deliver probably aren’t backed up by good data. They might not be backed up by any research at all, just a gut feeling about which options you imagine will be most important to the mythical on-the-go user.

Even if you do have analytics data about which content people are looking for on mobile, it’s not likely you’re getting an accurate picture of what people really want. Today’s crippled mobile experiences are inadequate testing grounds for evaluating what people wish they could do on mobile. As Jason Grigsby, Cofounder of CloudFour.com and MobilePortland.com, says:

We cannot predict future behavior from a current experience that sucks (http://bkaprt.com/csm/31).

If your vision for mobile is designing for context, then the first step you need to take is getting all your content onto mobile devices.

All of it? Really?

Really. Your content strategy for mobile should not be to develop a satellite to your desktop site, showing only the subset of content you’ve decided a mobile user will need. That’s not going to work because:

  • People move fluidly between devices, often choosing a mobile device even when they have access to a desktop computer. Don’t assume you can design for “the on-the-go user” because people use their mobile devices anywhere and everywhere.
  • Mobile-only users want and need to look at your content too! Don’t treat them like second-class citizens just because they never or rarely use the desktop. Even if you think of them as “mobile-mostly” users, remember that you don’t get to decide which device they use to access your content. They do.
  • Mobile supports reading content just as well as it supports functional tasks. Don’t pat yourself on the back just because you’ve mobile-ized some key features—there’s more work to do with your content.
  • Context is a cop out. Don’t use context as a rationale to withhold content unless you have real research and data about what users need in a given situation or environment. Unless you have that, you’re going to guess wrong. (And even if you do have that—given the crappy experiences most users get on mobile today, you’ll still probably guess wrong.)

Never force users to go to the desktop website for content they’re seeking on a mobile device. Instead, aim for content parity between your desktop and your mobile experiences—maybe not exactly the same content presented exactly the same way, but essentially the same experience.

It is your mission to get your content out, on whichever platform, in whichever format your audience wants to consume it. Your users get to decide how, when, and where they want to read your content. It is your challenge and your responsibility to deliver a good experience to them.

RSS readers: Don't forget to join the discussion!

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Your rating: None

We are pleased to present you with this excerpt from Chapter 1 of Content Strategy for Mobile by Karen McGrane, now available from A Book Apart. —Ed.

When we talk about how to create products and services for mobile, the conversation tends to focus on design and development challenges. How does our design aesthetic change when we’re dealing with a smaller (or higher-resolution) screen? How do we employ (and teach) new gestural interactions that take advantage of touchscreen capabilities? How (and who) will write the code for all these different platforms—and how will we maintain all of them?

Great questions, every one. But focusing just on the design and development questions leaves out one important subject: how are we going to get our content to render appropriately on mobile devices?

The good news is that the answer to this question will help you, regardless of operating system, device capabilities, or screen resolution. If you take the time to figure out the right way to get your content out there, you’ll have the freedom (and the flexibility) to get it everywhere. You can go back to thinking about the right design and development approaches for each platform, because you’ll already have a reusable base of content to work from.

The bad news is that this isn’t a superficial problem. Solving it isn’t something you can do in isolation, by sandboxing off a subset of your content in a stripped-down mobile website or app. The solution requires you to look closely at your content management system, your editorial workflow, even your organizational structure. You may need different tools, different processes, different ways of communicating.

Don’t despair. There’s even better news at the end of this rainbow. By taking the time now to examine your content and structure it for maximum flexibility and reuse, you’ll be (better) prepared the next time a new gadget rolls around. You’ll have cleared out all the dead wood, by pruning outdated, badly written, and irrelevant content, which means all your users will have a better experience. You’ll have revised and updated your processes and tools for managing and maintaining content, which means all the content you create in every channel—print, desktop, mobile, TV, social—will be more closely governed.

Mobile is not the “lite” version

It looks like you're on a train. Would you like me to show you the insultingly simplified mobile site?

—Cennydd Bowles (http://bkaprt.com/csm/15)

If people want to do something on the internet, they will want to do it using their mobile device. Period.

The boundaries between “desktop tasks” and “mobile tasks” are fluid, driven as much by the device’s convenience as they are by the ease of the task. Have you ever tried to quickly look up a bit of information from your tablet, simply because you’re too lazy to walk over to your computer? Typed in a lengthy email on your BlackBerry while sitting at your desk, temporarily forgetting your keyboard exists? Discovered that the process to book a ticket from your mobile was easier than using the desktop (looking at you, Amtrak!) because all the extra clutter was stripped away?

Have you noticed that the device you choose for a given activity does not necessarily imply your context of use?

People use every device in every location, in every context. They use mobile handsets in restaurants and on the sofa. They use tablets with a focused determination in meetings and in a lazy Sunday morning haze in bed. They use laptops with fat pipes of employer-provided connectivity and with a thin trickle of data siphoned through expensive hotel Wi-Fi. They use desktop workstations on the beach—okay, they really only use traditional desktop machines at desks. You’ve got me on that one.

Knowing the type of device the user is holding doesn’t tell you anything about the user’s intent. Knowing someone’s location doesn’t tell you anything about her goals. You can’t make assumptions about what the user wants to do simply because she has a smaller screen. In fact, all you really know is: she has a smaller screen.

The immobile context

Users have always accessed our content from a variety of screen sizes and resolutions. Data reported by SecureCube shows that in January 2000, the majority of users visited from a browser with an 800×600 resolution, but a significant minority (twenty-nine percent) accessed the site at 1024×768 or higher, with a smaller percentage (eleven percent) viewing the site at 640×480 (http://bkaprt.com/csm/16; fig 1.1). At that time, decisions about how best to present content were seen as design challenges, and developers sought to provide a good reading experience for users at all resolutions, discussing appropriate ways to adjust column widths and screen layouts as content reflowed from smaller to larger screens.

Figure 1.1

Fig 1.1: We have plenty of experience delivering content to a variety of screen resolutions. Why do we assume that mobile screens necessarily indicate a different context?

What you didn’t hear designers talking about was the “640×480 context” and how it differed from the “1024×768 context.” No one tried to intuit which tasks would be more important to users browsing at 800×600, so less important options could be hidden from them. No one assumed that people’s mindset, tasks, and goals would be different, simply because they had a different-sized monitor.

Why do we assume that mobile is any different?

Mobile tasks, mobile content

I recently departed Austin, Texas, traveling with three friends. Since we arrived at the airport a bit early, I wanted to lounge in the comfort of the United Club, away from the teeming masses. I felt it would be rude to abandon my friends to a similar fate outside, and so I wanted to know how many guests I could bring with me to the club.

A simple Google search should clear up this problem. Sure enough, I quickly found a link that seemed promising (fig 1.2).

Figure 1.2

Fig 1.2: Searching for “United Club Membership” shows that the content exists on the desktop site. But because the mobile website redirects the URL, users wind up on the homepage of the mobile site.

Alas, following the link to United Club Membership just took me to the homepage for mobile.united.com. When users search from a mobile device, United automatically redirects links from Google to its mobile website—without checking to see if the content is available on mobile. If the content doesn’t exist on mobile, the user gets unceremoniously dumped on the homepage of the mobile website. Mobile redirects that break search—how is that ever a good user experience?

Sure, there’s a link to the full desktop site, but that too just dumped me on the desktop homepage. I could try to use United’s internal site search, but I’d wind up pinching and zooming my way through several search result screens formatted for the desktop. And honestly: why should I have to? An answer that should take me one tap from the Google search results should not require searching and tapping through several pages on both the mobile and the desktop sites.

I went and asked the representative at the desk. (Correct answer: two guests.)

I don’t bring this up just because I want to shame United for wantonly redirecting links to a mobile URL when the content isn’t available on its mobile website. (That’s a terrible thing to do, but it comes after a long list of other bad things I’d like to shame United Airlines for doing.) No, I use this example to illustrate a common misconception about mobile devices: that they should deliver only task-based functionality, rather than information-seeking content.

Information seeking is a task

Luke Wroblewski, in his book Mobile First, tells us that Southwest Airlines is doing the right thing by focusing only on travel tasks (fig 1.3):

The mobile experience…has a laser-like focus on what customers need and what Southwest does: book travel, check in, check flight status, check miles, and get alerts. No room for anything else. Only what matters most.

Figure 1.3

Fig 1.3: The Southwest Airlines iPhone application only has room for what actually matters…if what matters doesn’t involve looking up information.

Mobile experts and airline app designers don’t get to decide what “actually matters.” What matters is what matters to the user. And that’s just as likely to be finding a piece of information as it is to be completing a task.

Eighty-six percent of smartphone owners have used their phone in the previous month to look up information—whether to solve a problem, settle an argument, get up-to-the minute information such as traffic or sports scores, or to decide whether to visit a business like a restaurant (http://bkaprt.com/csm/27). Don’t believe me? Look at your own search history on your mobile device—you’ve probably tried to answer all sorts of questions by looking up information on your phone.

The Southwest Airlines desktop website includes information about their baggage policies, including policies for checked bags, carry-ons, and pets, as well as lost and found, delayed baggage, and a variety of other traveler information, such as what to do if you lose your ticket, need to rebook, or your flight is overbooked. It even includes information for parents looking to book travel for unaccompanied minors, and how Southwest accommodates disabled flyers and the elderly.

The mobile experience does not. Who are we to say that this content doesn’t actually matter?

It’s fine to optimize the mobile experience for the most common tasks. But that doesn’t mean that you should exclude valuable content.

Mobile is social

Have you ever clicked on a link from Facebook or Twitter on your phone? How about a link someone sent you in an email?

Figure 1.4

Fig 1.4: “No mobile content found. Would you like to visit the desktop version of the site?” asks The Guardian. Can you guess the answer?

Of course you have. Sharing content with our friends and colleagues is one of the bedrock ways we communicate these days. Users don’t distinguish between accessing email, Facebook, Twitter, or other social services on the desktop or on mobile—they choose them fluidly, depending on which device they’re closest to at the time. In fact, as of June 2012, nearly twenty percent of Facebook members use it exclusively on mobile (http://bkaprt.com/csm/28).

If your content isn’t available on mobile—or provides a bad reading experience—you’re missing out on one of the most compelling ways to get people to read it. Is your site littered with icons trying to get people to share your content? If your readers just get an error message when they tap on shared content, all the effort you put into encouraging social sharing is wasted (fig 1.4).

Designing for context

“Context” is the buzzword everyone throws around when talking about mobile. At the South by Southwest Interactive conference in 2011, the panel called “Designing for context” was the number one must-see session, according to .net Magazine (http://bkaprt.com/csm/29).

The dream is that you can tailor your content for the user’s context—location, time of day, social environment, personal preferences. Based on what you know about the user, you can dynamically personalize the experience so it adapts to meet her needs.

Today, we use “designing for the mobile context” as an excuse to make mobile an inferior experience. Businesses want to invest the least possible time and effort into mobile until they can demonstrate return on investment. Designers believe they can guess what subset of information or functionality users want. Everyone argues that they’re designing for the “mobile use case.”

Beware of personalized interfaces

Presuming that the “designer knows best” when choosing how to deliver personalized content or functionality is risky. We’re notoriously bad about predicting what someone will want. Even armed with real data, we’re likely to make incorrect assumptions when we decide to show some things and hide others.

Microsoft Office tried this strategy in the late 1990s. Office 97 offered many new features and enhancements, which made the user interface more complex. Long menus and dense toolbars gave the impression that the interface was “bloated” (http://bkaprt.com/csm/30). (Sound like any desktop websites you know?)

In response, Microsoft developed “personalized menus” and “rafted toolbars” which showed the most popular items first (fig 1.5). Although Microsoft had good data and a powerful algorithm to help determine which items should be presented first, it turned out that users didn’t like being second-guessed. People found it more frustrating to go through a two-stage process, hunting through multiple menus to find what they were looking for. Personalized menus violated one of the core principles of usable design: put the user in control.

Figure 1.5

Fig 1.5: Personalized menus in Office 97 attempted to prioritize only the options Microsoft thought users wanted. They were a failure.

Now imagine that instead of clicking a chevron at the bottom of the menu to expand it, the user has to click a link to “full desktop website” and then hunt around in the navigation while squinting at a tiny screen. If your website’s mobile version only offers a subset of your content, you’re giving your users the same frustrating experience. Only much worse.

You don’t have good data

Microsoft had a ton of data about which options people used most frequently. They developed a complex algorithm to present the default “short” menu based on the items people were most likely to want, based on years of history and research with multiple iterations of their product. And they still made mistakes.

The choices you make about which subset of content you want to deliver probably aren’t backed up by good data. They might not be backed up by any research at all, just a gut feeling about which options you imagine will be most important to the mythical on-the-go user.

Even if you do have analytics data about which content people are looking for on mobile, it’s not likely you’re getting an accurate picture of what people really want. Today’s crippled mobile experiences are inadequate testing grounds for evaluating what people wish they could do on mobile. As Jason Grigsby, Cofounder of CloudFour.com and MobilePortland.com, says:

We cannot predict future behavior from a current experience that sucks (http://bkaprt.com/csm/31).

If your vision for mobile is designing for context, then the first step you need to take is getting all your content onto mobile devices.

All of it? Really?

Really. Your content strategy for mobile should not be to develop a satellite to your desktop site, showing only the subset of content you’ve decided a mobile user will need. That’s not going to work because:

  • People move fluidly between devices, often choosing a mobile device even when they have access to a desktop computer. Don’t assume you can design for “the on-the-go user” because people use their mobile devices anywhere and everywhere.
  • Mobile-only users want and need to look at your content too! Don’t treat them like second-class citizens just because they never or rarely use the desktop. Even if you think of them as “mobile-mostly” users, remember that you don’t get to decide which device they use to access your content. They do.
  • Mobile supports reading content just as well as it supports functional tasks. Don’t pat yourself on the back just because you’ve mobile-ized some key features—there’s more work to do with your content.
  • Context is a cop out. Don’t use context as a rationale to withhold content unless you have real research and data about what users need in a given situation or environment. Unless you have that, you’re going to guess wrong. (And even if you do have that—given the crappy experiences most users get on mobile today, you’ll still probably guess wrong.)

Never force users to go to the desktop website for content they’re seeking on a mobile device. Instead, aim for content parity between your desktop and your mobile experiences—maybe not exactly the same content presented exactly the same way, but essentially the same experience.

It is your mission to get your content out, on whichever platform, in whichever format your audience wants to consume it. Your users get to decide how, when, and where they want to read your content. It is your challenge and your responsibility to deliver a good experience to them.

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Today’s game consoles may offer subpar web experiences with little browser choice, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore them. More than one in eight internet users in the UK, US, and France—and nearly one in four American teens—uses a game console to get online. As more console makers offer internet-capable devices—and as smart TVs continue to enter the market—now is the time to plan how our sites will adapt to these new contexts. Learn how to test your web content on phone consoles; handheld consoles like Sony PSP and Nintendo DS; and TV consoles like Nintendo Wii, Sony PS3, and Microsoft Xbox 360.

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The high-res future is coming

The first of the new iPads will arrive in the hands of the public this Friday, March 16. Like the iPhone before it, and no doubt many more devices to come after it, the new iPad has four times the resolution of typical screens. That means your visitors will soon be looking at your site on a high-resolution screen with a whopping 3.1 million pixels.

The sharp, crystal-clear screens are awesome news for new iPad owners, but they create some new dilemmas for web developers who’d like to offer a better experience for high-resolution screens. Sure, increased pixel density means you can serve up sharper, better looking graphics, but there is a cost as well — bigger images mean more bandwidth and longer page loads.

This isn’t a new problem by any means and Webmonkey has looked at a variety of solutions in the past, including techniques like adaptive images and responsive images.

The problem is simple: you need to send smaller images to small screens and larger images to larger screens. Sending a huge iPad-optimized image to a device with a max resolution of 320×480 just doesn’t make sense. At the same time, when bandwidth isn’t an issue, most sites will want to serve high-resolution content to displays that can handle it.

The ideal solution would be to detect both the resolution of the screen and the available bandwidth. Then, based on the combination of those two factors, the server could offer up the appropriate image. Currently that’s not possible, though there are already proposals to extend HTML to handle that scenario.

The Responsive Image Working Group is a W3C community group hoping to solve some of these problems. The group is proposing a new HTML element, <picture>, which will take into account factors like network speed, device dimensions, screen pixel density and browser cache to figure out which image to serve up. Think of it as a much smarter version of the old lowsrc property. So far though it’s all hypothetical

In the mean time if you’d like to serve up high resolution images to your third-generation iPad visitors look no further than Apple.com for one (not necessarily ideal) way to do it. An Apple Insider reader noticed that Apple is already prepping its site to deliver double-resolution images to new iPads. Cloud Four’s Jason Grigsby, whose responsive image research we’ve covered before, has a great breakdown of what Apple is doing.

Essentially Apple is serving up lower resolution images by default, then using JavaScript to send larger images on to iPads. That works, but it will definitely mean increased download times for new iPads since they have to download two files for every graphic. Apple’s approach will also up the number of HTTP requests, which will also slow down the page.

The slower page loads seem to be an acceptable trade off for Apple since the company no doubt wants to showcase the new iPad’s high resolution display with high resolution images. For other sites the bandwidth trade off may not be worth the gain in image resolution.

Still, screens are only going to continue getting better with ever-increasing pixel density. Now is the time, if you haven’t already, to start embracing CSS 3 (avoid images altogether with gradients, shadows and rounded corners in CSS 3), Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) for resolution independent graphics and of course @media queries to serve high-res background images.

For more on detecting and developing for high resolution displays, check out these posts from around the web:

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With a mobile-first responsive design approach, if any part of the process breaks down, your user can still receive a representative image and avoid an unnecessarily large request on a device that may have limited bandwidth. But with several newer browsers implementing an “image prefetching” feature that allows images to be fetched before parsing the document’s body, some of the web's brightest developers are abandoning responsive images in favor of user agent detection, at least as a temporary solution. For us standardistas, UA detection leaves a bad taste in the mouth. More importantly, as the number and kinds of devices continue to grow, UA detection will quickly become untenable—just as browser detection did back in the bad old days before web standards. What's really needed, argues Mat Marquis, is a new markup element that works the way the HTML5 video element works. Sound crazy? So crazy it just might work.

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DOs and DON'Ts of Mobile Strategy

Google Tech Talk October 8, 2010 Presented by Jason Grigsby. ABSTRACT John Battelle recently wrote, "Mobile. It's on everyone's lips, but no one knows what the hell to do about it." You don't have to look very far to find examples that prove his point. Over the last year, Jason Grigsby has been collecting examples of where companies are making mistakes when it comes to their mobile strategies and desperately seeking examples of those who get it. In this presentation, Jason will talk about the DOs and DONTs of mobile strategy. Learn from both the outstanding success and cringe-worthy failures of others as you begin to formulate your plans for navigating the mobile landscape. Finally, we'll look at methods for evaluating mobile strategies based on demographics, mobile context, and the unique characteristics of mobile devices. Jason Grigsby was one of the project leads on the Obama iPhone Application and helped design the user inferface for the Wall Street Journal's Blackberry application. He founded and organizes Mobile Portland, a local mobile group. Jason is a co-founder of Cloud Four, a small start-up focused on mobile and web development. He blogs at CloudFour.com and provides a frequent updates about mobile as @grigs on Twitter.
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