Is Responsive Design Great Mobile Design?
The first time in your career that you notice things have changed since you started is a pretty exciting milestone. In a young industry like UX, this doesn’t take long. The biggest changes I have noticed have been in the mobile space.
Specifically, I can remember a time when designing mobile experiences meant only designing for the tasks you thought users would do on mobile. For example, if an airline was thinking about creating a mobile version of their website, we could safely assume that users would probably only be tracking their flight status and maybe checking in on their phone while taking care of their flight booking when they are at home on their desktop.
This simplified the creation of mobile experiences. We could simply push all the complex tasks to the desktop version of the site where users have large screens, keyboard and mice, and put all the easy stuff in the mobile version of the site. Unfortunately, these glory days are over.
It’s difficult to identify exactly when this happened. I like to point to the 2013 holiday shopping season, when the number of mobile shoppers on Amazon outnumbered the desktop users for the first time (The Mobile Moment by Luke Wroblewski).
Around the same time, here at Akendi, I started to encounter a new breed of usability test participants. I call them ‘Mobile Only’ users whose only access to the Internet is through their mobile device. These are usually individuals from 18-35 years-old, working blue-collar jobs, and many have not used a laptop or desktop in several years. If these users are part of your target group, you need to come up with a comprehensive mobile solution or they will be out of your reach.
Although initially meant to be a time saver for developers, responsive design seemed to be the answer to these users’ prayers. Whereas before we would limit the amount of available tasks on mobile, the responsive solution simply squished the full desktop experience into menu buttons and turned content into long scrolling pages. This allowed access to the full experience on all devices without requiring too much pesky thinking.
When it Works
In certain situations, this works. If the system is content heavy and content consumption is the primary task, then using progressive disclosure makes sense. News websites for example require complex information architectures and the best solution is to help manage this complexity by progressively exposing it to users.
On the other hand, the responsive approach can make usability a huge challenge in heavily task focused systems. In my experience, users are unlikely to discover functionality that is hidden under menu buttons. Scrolling through long pages of content can completely derail a user whose objective is to complete a specific task.
The solution is to expand your understanding of who your users are, the context in which they are interacting with your system, and the details of their task from their perspective. This information can be leveraged into mobile solutions that prioritize the common mobile tasks in a way that capitalizes on the capability of the mobile platform. To satisfy our ‘Mobile Only’ users, secondary tasks can be kept accessible without compromising our critical mobile tasks.
For an example of this, see my review of Hotel Tonight from a previous blog post. Here the designers use the location information in the mobile device paired with a solid understanding of their target users’ objectives (to get a hotel immediately in the city they are in). This combination made for a mobile experience that is actually easier than booking a hotel on a desktop. You will know that you have created a truly exceptional mobile experience when users prefer mobile for completing their critical tasks with your system.