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Jakob Nielsen needs to embrace responsive web design

by Shareef Ayyad. Average Reading Time: about 3 minutes.

Recently, the well-known usability consultant Jakob Nielsen published an article entitled Mobile Site vs Full Site, in which he put forward his recommendations for designing websites for mobile devices. To be completely honest, reading this article was very disheartening, and I was left wondering how there was not one mention of responsive web design.

A separate site for mobile? Nope!

Nielsen suggests organisations should build a separate website for mobile users, and casually throws in “if you can afford it”, as if it’s an afterthought. He then suggests that making a mobile app is even better.

Firstly, building and monitoring two separate websites, one for the desktop, and one for mobile devices, is a content strategy nightmare, and creates content forking. The costs won’t just be incurred in the initial build of the two separate websites, but also in resources during the life of the system, because time and manpower will have to be dedicated for content management.

As for the mobile app suggestion, that, too, is costly. Separate native apps will need to be developed in many different operating systems, such as iOS, Android and Windows Phone, if an organisation’s user base is spread across different mobile brands.

In the real world, we web designers have to come up with cost-effective solutions for our clients, and suggesting that they build separate sites just isn’t feasible, most of the time. Clients are a bit more open to building mobile apps, but that’s just because it’s a buzzword, or current trend, and much of the time they don’t even want to make use of the mobile GPS or accelerometer – the main benefits to choosing a native app over a web-based app – which is why responsive web design should be the answer.

Cut features and content? Nope!

Nielsen goes on to suggest that we should cut features and content that are ‘not core to the mobile use case’. This was a big red flag for me, and I’ve written before about why we shouldn’t make sweeping assumptions about mobile users. Designing from the basis that all mobile users are on-the-go and just need quick access to contact details, or other snippets of information, is both ill-informed and, quite frankly, lazy. There are many users who browse the web on their mobile device over WIFI, while sitting on the couch. Other users browse on the mobile device at work, for entertainment. Removing content from a site, based on the device a user is browsing from, is discriminatory. It’s far better to hide content in accordions or drop down blocks that the user can reveal as and when they need it.

Links to the full site? Nope!

Jakob then tries to remedy this removal of content by recommending we place a link to the full desktop website. This is utter nonsense. Let’s break it down. What he’s proposing here is that we should make a user land on a mobile-optimized layout, where the fonts are large, the interface is fat and finger-friendly, and the content is sparse and minimal; and then we should force them to load a completely different layout half-way through the user journey, just to get to the content they wanted in the first place, but was removed because of their browsing device! When the full site loads, the page will most probably be zoomed out, as is default on most smartphones, so the interface and content will be much smaller.

Nielsen’s suggest we make the user learn one system (the mobile website) and then force them to learn a completely different one (the full website), which, to me, doesn’t improve usability one iota.

Mobile-first, responsive web design and designing for emotion

We are coming up to the two-year anniversary of Ethan Marcotte’s seminal article on A List Apart, where he first introduced responsive web design, and reading these recommendations by Jakob Nielsen has only reinforced my long-held suspicion that he is out of touch with the current practices in the web community. The sad thing is, there are university students and lecturers (who I have met) who take Nielsen’s words as gospel, almost as if they are written in stone. This can be dangerous for our community, and it’s up to us to spread the teachings of heroes like Ethan Marcotte, Luke Wroblewski and Aaron Walter, to ensure that we continue to move forward and evolve our craft.