Mobile vs. Desktop: Focus on What Matters

I love all the talk and web strategy around the mobile web. Web professionals are making deliberate efforts to ensure that websites and web services are lightweight, accessible, cunningly planned to be fast and immediate, and generally mobile ready / mobile first / mobile mobile.

Still, I find myself getting more and more riled when I hear conversations around designing and developing for the mobile web. People really seem to focus on what a mobile user wants when compared to a desktop user. It’s partly because I am a cardiganed, word-loving, old fusspot, but I truly feel that the term “mobile” is distracting us from delivering our best work. And by “us” I mean Americans, because we don’t call our cellphones “mobiles.” When someone from the US talks about the mobile web user, we call forth someone in motion, ranging around the world actively, and likely running into bears.

Look, mobile users aren’t exclusively people on a commuter train, or running to catch a flight. And they aren’t information barnstormers, swooping into your site for a few scant minutes of frantic, high-level research before retreating back to reality, waiting to do their serious web browsing on their laptops.

Here is everything we know about all mobile users and which should impact our design: they are accessing the web on a screen smaller than the average laptop. The end.

How small? Well, mobile device widths vary too broadly to nail down, but generally, we’re looking at screen widths smaller than 480 pixels (which is a horizontally held iPhone 6). Bear in mind that some phones have horizontal widths as large as 540px.

In contrast, the list of things we might assume about mobile users but do not know reliably is extensive:

  • Do they have a touch screen?
  • If they have a touch screen, will they use it for site interactions?
  • Are they connecting at slower speeds than their laptop?
  • Are they in motion?
  • Do they want fast answers?
  • Do they have a purpose at all?
  • Will they have access to a desktop machine at some point during the conversion process?

So much design conversation focuses on the differences between mobile users and desktop users that our industry creates its own red herrings over which to worry and fret. Rather, identify the similarities in each camp and focus your energies toward delivering those 100% of the time.

This is not to say that the development side of the web industry should not be making conscious decisions to play nice on mobile screens. Responsive web design, optimization of the DOM, awareness of resource heavy page elements (e.g. don’t make videos autoplay on smaller screens) — all of these are choices a development team needs to make to ensure a quality user experience for mobile users.

However, we sometimes make more of this split that is smart. The element reduction we often perform for the mobile layout are what truly matters, so be wary of desktop bloat. Clients often fall in love with design elements that only work on very large screens, but if something is essential to your site, it flat out has to work on smaller screens too. The concept of designing Mobile First is a great way to rein ourselves in somewhat, but reshaping this outlook from a starting point upon which to add into an ideology for determining what a site does consistently and across every single breakpoint is an aspiration that should transcend and supplant something as rigid as device width.

Rather that focus on mobile versus desktop, put the optimal user experience at the top and make decisions to support that. Instead of “mobile designs,” try calling them “essential layouts” or “core elements” — I’m not sure on the terminology yet, but I do firmly believe that the words we use to describe something takes on a power that can mislead.

So the next time someone starts explaining how mobile users only want this or that, remember that you only have one user, and that person deserves the best version of your content regardless of whether they are on a small screen or a large one. Be agnostic in how you view your concepts and do more than lead with what is vital; have your concepts be what is vital regardless of screen size.

I originally published this article on my site:

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