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Can We Finally Move Beyond Mobile?

posted by Matt Ward on Sep 20, 2011.

The emergence of responsive design is changing the way that many people think about web design. In this article, we will look at what this might mean for the future and consider the possibility that it is finally time start moving beyond the division of the mobile web and start thinking of a unified and device-independent web.

So here we are, well into the second half of 2011. Some might even say we are in the home stretch, already looking toward what 2012 will have to offer. In this moment, it seems that everywhere you turn somebody is writing about responsive web design. Several days ago, Andy Clarke even went so far as to tweet

From now on, if it’s not responsive, it’s not web design.

Now, I don’t particularly agree with this all-encompassing statement, and in a previous article I discussed some of the potential caveats and pitfalls of responsive design. That being said, however, this responsive movement strikes me as being more than just another tool in the toolbox. Statements like Andy’s plainly suggest an entire paradigm shift within the community (or at least part of the community).

For those who adopt it, responsive design doesn’t just change the way we create websites, it changes the way with think about creating websites. That’s pretty revolutionary.

Instead of creating a “normal” site and a “mobile” site, we are now looking at the possibility of creating a single site that “responds” to its context and offers up different layouts, based on the amount of pixel space that is available. Exactly how we do this is still up for debate in some areas. Yes, media queries are going to be part of the solution, but there are still all kinds of questions surrounding other elements, such as images and advertising.

Still, by all indications, the responsive movement is here to stay, and I cannot help but wonder if its arrival means that we can finally start moving beyond the concept of the mobile web.

It’s A Flawed Term Anyhow

I’ll confess: I’ve never really liked the term “mobile” anyhow. It just seems semantically wrong to me. In my somewhat literal mind, my iPhone is not mobile at all. If I put it down on the desk in front of me, it just sits there, as inanimate as a book or a rock. If it was actually mobile, would it not be able to propel itself into motion, or at least be made to move on its own, without me having to pick it up and carry it with me? I would certainly think so.

And so, by this definition, my iPhone is not a mobile phone at all. It’s a cellular phone, which connects to other devices through a wireless network. The only thing mobile about the entire situation is me and my ability to carry the phone from location to location.

Of course, I recognize that I am arguing—probably very much in vain—in the face of the established vernacular. People have been calling their cell phones “mobile” for years now and I have no expectations that my little rant here will do anything to change that. In fact, one of the largest providers of cellular telephone services in Canada is actually called Bell Mobility.

So, when it comes to how we talk about our phones, there is little chance that we will actually get away from the term itself.

But that doesn’t mean we still need to maintain this fragmented sense that somehow the “mobile” web is a disconnected or separate entity from the “normal” or “desktop” web (which is just as problematic of a term).

Looking at Behaviours

At first glance, there seems to be an initial assumption that, if people are using their handheld devices to access the web, they must be doing so “on the go”. Maybe this means riding the city bus, or taking a cab ride through downtown New York (I hear that’s an adventure). From a certain perspective it does make sense; these devices allow us to bring the web to places it could never have gone before. If we accept this assumption as truth, it is easy to infer that people who are accessing our sites via these devices will be in a rush, simply because of where they are (or where they are passing through). This, in turn, can lead to assumptions about how content should be designed.

Yet, more and more, I am reading about research indicating that a large percentage of “mobile” internet usage is actually happening in the home, rather than out there in the oh-so-busy world. One article states that the percentage may be as high as 43%. This amounts to almost half of the total usage and, based on my own behaviors, makes total sense to me.

I use my iPhone at home all the time. I might be downstairs in our basement watching TV, and come across something that I want to look up. Or, I might suddenly remember I need to send and email or check the some stats of some sort (traffic or MLB standings, for instance). If my Mac is up on my desk and my iPad upon my nightstand (or, more likely, in the hands of my daughter), I’ll just whip out the iPhone and search for the desired information that way.

The interesting thing to note is that these actions are based on exactly the same motives that might have driven me to my laptop or desktop a few years ago. Today, I simply have to convenience of being able to carry the internet with me wherever I go (or at least wherever my 3G network will allow me to connect). Is there a difference in context? Absolutely. But, it’s more about the device than it is about my intentions, and any assumption that I am in a hurry when I am lounging on my couch is likely to be fundamentally inaccurate.

I just want to get the information I’m looking for.

Mobile First?

Of course, the logical extension of designing as though users are in a hurry is not necessarily a bad thing, and has been one of the fundamental principles of good usability for years. Even before the explosion of web-ready cellular devices, I seem to remember most UX pundits preaching that the fewer obstacles you put between your user and the content they are looking for, the more usable your site will be and, by extension, the more enjoyable the experience will be for the user.

As far as i can tell, that hasn’t changed.

It just seems that a number of factors have brought it to (back) to prevalence. The first is this assumption that users surfing on a handheld device are in much more of a hurry than users surfing on a desktop or laptop; we assume that they need information faster. In response, we start to cut out all the fluff (widgets) that have filled our sites for so many years, leaving us with optimized “mobile” sites that are leaner and more efficient than their desktop counterparts.

Of course, we’re thinking of the user first here. Right? It has nothing to do with that other factor called screen space. Because, as Luke Wroblewski has rightly pointed out:

There simply isn’t room in a 320 by 480 pixel screen for extraneous, unnecessary elements. You have to prioritize.

Suddenly, we don’t have room for all that extra content. We can’t cram an entire brochure’s worth of material (which probably too much even for a brochure) above the “fold”. Advertising banners or Google Adwords just take up too much valuable visual real-estate and either need to be relegated further down the page or removed entirely. As Luke points out, we suddenly need to prioritize, and if we have any common sense at all, that priority needs to be the content.

In ruthless, butcher-shop fashion, we cut away all the extra fat and produce simple sites where content is allowed to shine. In fact, we produce the type of sites that we should have been creating all along, regardless of the device they are being viewed on.

And, at least as I understand it, that is the reason (or at least one of the reasons) that Luke Wroblewski preaches his concept of mobile first with such fervor. It takes us back to the basics and helps eliminate much of what the calls the ”interface debris that litter today’s desktop accessed Web sites.”

Interestingly, however, if we dig to the core of this argument, we find that its not about division, but cohesion. The beauty of the so-called “mobile” design is that its fundamental constraints naturally lead to a better user experience on handheld devices (or at least handheld devices that offer a modern browsing experience). But the idea shouldn’t stop there. Instead, it should flow over into the entire site, placing the focus on content and usability in all contexts, not just for the smaller screens of our handheld devices.

The New Boston Globe

As a case in point, let’s look at the Boston Globe as an example. If you haven’t heard about its recent redesign, you clearly don’t spend much time on Twitter. Regardless, since it’s launch, news of this redesign has been plastered all over the design circles, mostly with a reasonably positive reception.

Setting the subscription-for-content model aside, the site overcomes a number of the issues that face many news-based sites these days (see this installment of The Brads for plentiful examples). It has a clean, elegant design that places the emphasis directly on the content. Lovely typography makes reading a real joy.

The new Boston Globe at a wide resolution

The new Boston Globe at a wide resolution

The exact same site with a narrower window

The exact same site with a narrower window

And finally, the same site in a very narrow window

And finally, the same site in a very narrow window

More significantly for our purposes, however, is the fact that these statements remain true on my iPhone, my iPad, my MacBook, and even on IE8 on my Vista-powered home PC. The site doesn’t try to distinguish between “mobile” and “desktop” users. Nor does it appear to make any glaring assumptions about behaviour in these areas. It is simply designed to respond to the space allocated for display, and to do so in such a way as to provide optimum readability and usability.

In my mind, this is the way of the future. It’s not about a “mobile“ web that stands in direct contrast to a “desktop“ web. Instead, its about a single, flexible and meticulously crafted web that provides rich user experiences across a wide range of different devices.

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Also from Echo Enduring Media:

An Unfolding Tale

About the Author

Matt Ward is a digital artist who lances freely under the moniker of Echo Enduring Media, and specializes in graphics design, illustration and writing. He is also the Creative Director for Highland Marketing, a creative direct marketing company based out of Waterloo, Ontario. You can follow Matt on Twitter

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Sep 23, 2011

Stefan says:

Thanks. Good and well thought Article.

Sep 23, 2011

Manuel Ruiz says:

Very good article. I totally agree with you.
“Mobile first” is just another way of saying “content first”. This is the right way of thinking. After all what is a site about if not about the content?

Sep 23, 2011

Nic da Costa says:

Very Nice Article, well done.

For all those who are interested in the responsive design, future friendly (http://futurefriend.ly/) is a great place to start and have a great list of resources!

This is a site started by Luke Wroblewski and several other designers and developers. This is their attempt to help promote designs becoming “future friendly” where we don’t target specific devices, but instead adopt the same ideology as The Boston Global did.

Sep 23, 2011

Climax Media says:

Responsive… Meh…

Compatibility is all it is.

A website is a website is a website. Compatibility is what ensures it’s optimized for various devices.

Mobile, desktop, whatever…

Sep 26, 2011

Daquan Wright says:

I too think emphasis should be put off mobile, and instead “adaptable.”

The web is a fluid and open platform, and accessibly by a myriad of devices. It only makes sense that a site be accessible across platforms, regardless of the technique. Certainly not just taking a website optimized for desktop, and letting it adjust to only mobile platforms. TVs are also becoming intertwined with the web.

Sep 27, 2011

Steven says:

I’m another for adding the term ‘Desktop’ to this too. Those ‘desktop version’ links on mobile sites … yuck. Sadly, I use both ‘mobile’ and ‘desktop’ terms because they are convention.

Using these terms isn’t ideal, but just like placing navigation at the start of html documents, some things clearly aren’t ideal but because the people who are to use them get comfortable with conventions, it can be counter-productive to fix afterwards.

As Climax Media suggests … a website is a website. However, people in the industry want to make money and ultimately most of us designers and developers are put in a position where we need to provide what the end-user expects. Hence why we have therse topics to vent our views on in the first place. So, is that so bad?

I’ve recently began to think that alot of what is hypethetically correct about an open, semantic and accessible internet, is also actually flawed in it’s implementation (and I know I am not the only one who knows it). Yet, like before this mobile boom, the world can still move on and we still have jobs regardless of what things are wrong with it. So maybe there is a more positive way to channel our passion? Perhaps we just need to adopt mobile and desktop convention (being that it is expected) and use it as best as we can.

Sep 28, 2011

Ecatherina Khetagurova says:

In no way belittling the importance of adaptive web design to properly display web pages on monitors with higher resolution is enough, I absolutely do not agree with the desire to use it instead of mobile design.

There is hardly a lot of people using mobile internet for a long surfing, reading many articles, study a lot of additional information provided by the sites. Even when you consider that people do not go to the Internet in the literal sense on the move, the vast majority of mobile Internet users looking for specific information on what is called here and now.
Most often, users of mobile internet urgent need to order a product or service, to read a specific article, to explore opinions about the work of a company, etc. I doubt that in this case the user will enjoy for a long time to get to the information you need.

Imagine that you need to buy some books to study. Would you ask the seller a bookstore in detail retell the content of all books on the subject or start to read the entire literature in a row just standing at the counter before you buy it? No, you’re curious by brief announcements of your books you will find reviews about them, can be run through the eyes introduction to the book.

The same behavior applies to the mobile internet users. Therefore, the mobile site should be a kind of announcement, a presentation of a large site. Mobile site should contain only the most basic information that is of paramount importance to the user.Mobile internet is valued for its speed and ease of finding relevant information.

A unified web page is deprived of a large amount of content. He suffers from a site owner who loses income from advertising. Suffers from the user PC, who can not get the usual amount of information without scrolling web page. He suffers from mobile Internet users, unable to quickly get access to basic information. Everyone suffers.

One more thing. Admirers of adaptive web design is clearly discounting the fact that most users of mobile Internet – it’s not the owners of iPad, and those people who are holding a mobile device with a screen resolution 328h480 px and even 240h320px

Sep 28, 2011

Halley | Custom Posters says:

I think we can. Who knows maybe in time, everything will go mobile.

Oct 10, 2011

Allround says:

Yeah, really good article, agree : )

Oct 28, 2011

Andrew Macpherson says:

“If I put it down on the desk in front of me, it just sits there, as inanimate as a book or a rock. If it was actually mobile, would it not be able to propel itself into motion, or at least be made to move on its own, without me having to pick it up and carry it with me? I would certainly think so.”

Sorry to be pedantic, but no. The word you’re looking for is MOTILE, not mobile. Mobile means it can be moved (or carried). The term motile, used mainly in biology, describes an entity that can move under its own power or volition.

Come to think of it s motile phone would be a rather cool thing to have, like the little chappie in the Carphone Warehouse adverts. Or an astromech.

Oct 28, 2011

Matt Ward says:

Interesting observation, Andrew. My understanding of motility is that it is primarily a biological mechanism, and since we are talking about a nob-biological entity here, does it still apply?

Nov 20, 2011

Mani says:

Problem is, with Israeli mobile-websites at least, instead of just creating one long page, maintaining design, and keeping it just like the regular website, they stretch each article over 4-5 pages and its not easy to read that way, thats a point of improvement, I hope it is not like that in English websites.

Jan 13, 2012

JNsites website designers says:

Great post, I try and design my websites to work on both mobile and computers. It takes more time but it is worth it.

Jan 29, 2012

Design Porto says:

Nice Post! We’re updating our website for mobile so this is a very interesting topic for us! Good work

Feb 10, 2012

Joe Malleck says:

Great post. It seems that, yes, we are finally getting away from labels of certain “types” of web design. Eventually, it will all be responsive, or device/screen agnostic. This whole area of design is fascinating to me. Exciting times.

Apr 10, 2012

Martin Varesio says:

Would you ask the seller a bookstore in detail retell the content of all books on the subject or start to read the entire literature in a row just standing at the counter before you…

Jul 24, 2012

Matty says:

Its expected that smartphones and tablets will soon outsell desktops. So it probably makes more sense to adapt responsive design and design for mobile first. From a design point of view it depends on the design and functionalities you want on your site. Sometimes there are certain features you don’t need for mobile but you need for desktop. Cheers from Matty at webtemplates.com.au.

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