Analogies are Like Dinners, or Thoughts on Cliff's Notes and Mobile Sites

If the words “mobile web,” “responsive design,” and “click here to view our desktop site” mean anything to you, the last couple of days have probably been pretty interesting. On April 12th, the venerable Jakob Nielsen penned a controversial article telling companies to roll back their clocks to 2008. Build a separate mobile site, he advised, redirect mobile device users to it automatically, and provide cross-links for those determined to see how the other half lives. In particular, he advocated eliminating content and features that aren’t “core to the mobile use case.”

Designer and Mobile Dude Josh Clark weighed in with what I can only assume was profound disappointment, noting that the much-talked-about ‘mobile use case’ is a mirage. Some users are on-the-go factoid hunters, looking for a quick hit of movie showtimes and key phone numbers. Real mobile usage, however, covers a broad spectrum of scenarios. In addition, more and more low-income users access the internet exclusively through mobile devices; a ‘just the basics’ approach to mobile site functionality is another element in the growing digital divide.

Enter writer and web developer Jason Mark. His recent column for .Net Magazine tries to split the difference, and accuracy suffers for the sake of provocative positioning. He boldly announces that both Nielsen and Clark were wrong, but singles out Clark’s points for specific criticism and ultimately makes a case for the same separate-site approach as Nielsen. While the essence of Mark’s advice is sound (look to the actual usage data for a site to figure out what its “mobile users” need), his critique of Clark stumbles in two key ways.

First, the piece summarizes Clark’s argument as “Always build a single responsive site.” In reality, Clark’s article advocated the same sort of analytics-driven decision making that led Mark to build separate mobile sites for his clients. The key take-away from Clark’s article was the fact that there is no single “mobile use case” all companies can target. Figure out how your visitors are using your mobile site (or how they’d like to) and tailor it to that. If responsive design techniques work, use them. If a separate site with pared down content is what they want, that’s the right way to go. The danger lies in in assuming that a mobile visitor has a particular task in mind simply because of her user-agent.

Which brings us to the second problem: A terrible analogy. Clark’s article equated limited-functionality sites to books with chapters ripped out, and I agree with his comparison. Jason Marks’ response article responds with a counter-analogy: limited-functionality mobile sites are like Cliff’s Notes, and students love those little yellow-and-black lifesavers.

The problem isn’t that someone, somewhere, is serving up truncated content. The problem is assuming that a visitor wants that truncated content or reduced functionality simply because of the device they’re using. It’s like assuming every college student wants the Cliff’s Notes version of a book simply because they’re wearing school colors. Sometimes, it’s a perfect match – often, though, it will result in annoyance and confusion.

That frustration and confusion is often compounded by the common antipatterns found in separate mobile sites: mismatching URL structures, deeplinks to the desktop site that redirect mobile users to the front page of the stripped-down site, iPhone-centric design assumptions, and so on. Responsive design, far from being a design fad, is an attempt to solve those problems and streamline the process of managing content and functionality-rich sites. It’s not a panacea, but celebrating the merits of separate mobile sites without addressing their real flaws is an exercise in missing the point.

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