What Users Want from Mobile, and what we can re-learn from them

From Stephanie Rieger’s excellent piece The Best Browser is the One You Have with You, I came upon a report called What Users Want from Mobile (PDF, 3.6 MB), “A study of consumers’ mobile web and application expectations and experiences conducted by Equation Research on behalf of Compuware”, dated July 2011.

There are a couple of key nuggets in there (although the full report is worth a read). First, let’s remind ourselves that the internet contributed £121 billion (not million) to the UK last year, which is more that £2000 per person, making it 8.3% of the economy. Let’s also agree that mobile is an important and rapidly-growing part of that.

A bad experience on a mobile website leaves mobile web users much less likely to return to, or recommend, a particular website. Nearly half of mobile web users are unlikely to return to a website that they had trouble accessing from their phone and 57% are unlikely to recommend the site.

It’s pretty likely that visitors are coming to your website from non-webkit browsers: Opera is huge. It’s becoming more likely as Internet Explorer on Windows Phone 7 hits the market and when Firefox Fennec is released.

If you don’t make sure that your website works in those browsers (this means testing), 50% of those customers won’t come back. And, unless you are selling something completely unique, they’re quite likely to buy from your competitors instead:

Mobile users do not have much patience for retrying a website or application that is not functioning initially — a third will go to a competitor’s site instead.

Another interesting finding is likely to annoy some developers. When asked “What is the most common problem you’ve encountered accessing websites or applications on your mobile phone?”, respondants answered “Slow to load” (38%), “Crashed/froze received an error” (18%), “Formatting made it difficult to read and use” (15%).

This tells us that speed is more important than aesthetics. So perhaps some of the time and effort put into media queries, viewports, avoiding scrolling, line length would actually be better employed reducing HTTP requests and optimising so that websites are perceived to render faster.

Certainly, if you’re using gigantic libraries and frameworks to speed up your development, you might pause to wonder whether trading off faster development for slower loading is a trade-off you want to make, given that most users find speed to be the main problem – and problems drive consumers away and potentially into the arms of competitors.

It seems to me that old-fashioned, oh-so-dull techniques might not be ready for retirement yet. You know: well-crafted HTML, keeping JavaScript for progressive enhancement rather than a pre-requisite for the page even displaying, and testing across browsers.

They might not be cool. But it’s what users want. And if your business doesn’t provide it, your competitors will.

Added 17 April: in a survey conducted in Brazil, 62% agreed that speed was the most important feature for them while browsing the mobile web.

23 Responses to “ What Users Want from Mobile, and what we can re-learn from them ”

Comment by Jonny Schneider

Great analysis. It’s comforting to hear that there are people out there who see this from a similar perspective. I’m not knocking the more common view – aesthetics are sometimes important – but sometimes it can be a difficult to articulate and get support for the other – arguably more important – factors on user experience.

Stats like those you’ve quoted from the Stephanie Rieger make that conversation easier.

Comment by Lush

I read her article and this is what I think is one of the most important insights:

“Each kilobyte on your site should add value. Period.”

Building a website is a joint effort: it involves a lot of people, some of them web professionals, some not. No matter who is working on it, all should be aware of some basic principles but unfortunately in real world this is not happening. As a web developer I know there’s always a “higher power” that will want the dropdown made with JQuery, or some eye-candy that brings no real value but the client’s secretary just loves it and think it will be cool to have it.

Very few web development companies are actually strong enough to have their way and impose their view 100% of the cases – most of them are still trying to educate the market, a client at a time.

Comment by Greg Lockwood

It is interesting that the rise of mobiles is forcing us to almost regress in terms of development practices and concerns to practices that were common a number of years ago.

For example, having to manually manage memory and be frugal with it is something that many modern developers do not know or have forgotten how to do, but which is necessary on mobile platforms such as iOS that do not have automatic memory management and garbage collection.

Similarly, skills in creating fast, optimised web pages which perform well over slow connections is a skill that many people do not emphasize much anymore in this age of widespread broadband. But clearly such skills are now just as important if we want to have a mobile-friendly site.

I also had to laugh at the quote that Lush highlighted, “Each kilobyte on your site should add value. Period.” As a primarily .NET WebForms 3.5 developer, creating a lean and fast website is next to impossible on that framework. Viewstate that is enabled by default, excessive tables used for layout, poor native support for cacheable or even gzipped static files, and so on are all things that make creating a mobile-friendly site far more difficult than it has to be. And unfortunately, some of us are finding it very hard to sell employers on changing over to ASP.NET MVC, which doesn’t have many of those same problems, because it is too much of a shift from the way things are currently done.

Comment by Billee D.

Very interesting. Everyone wants the new and shiny yet we always come back to the same pain points: semantic HTML and Progressive Enhancement just works. I understand the desire to use the new hotness—it’s what keeps us looking forward. But at the same time we need to always remember that having a solid baseline experience that works is the most important thing.

The more “mobile-friendly,” responsive designs I work on the more I realize that browser/device testing is half of my work. Clean and simple design will always be fashionable and relevant, but now it may be time to realize that it’s the only way forward.

Future friendly is the way. Thanks for putting it out there again.