Mobile user experience ‘miserable’

CellPhoneHow bad is the current user experience on mobile devices? The Nielsen Norman Group released a study July 20 and web usability expert Jakob Nielsen, who worked on it, didn’t sugar-coat the results:

The phrase “mobile usability” is pretty much an oxymoron. It’s neither easy nor pleasant to use the Web on mobile devices. Observing user suffering during our sessions reminded us of the very first usability studies we did with traditional websites in 1994. It was that bad.

Sure, Nielsen is a curmudgeon on this stuff. But his analysis is generally bang on. The worst aspect, he states, is half of the problems with the devices are structural and are unlikely to be substantially improved.  The primary issues include:

  • Small screens. They force users to remember more because less information is displayed at any one time. They also make interactions difficult because the work area is smaller.
  • Awkward input. Doing anything – entering text, clicking a link or scrolling – is slow and prone to error.
  • Download delays. Wireless service is still slower than a landline.
  • Poorly designed sites. Most sites are designed for the desktop, not mobile. In fact, the study showed that the success rate for people who used sites that were designed specifically for mobile devices was 21% higher than that for the same sites desktop users see.

One of the key findings was that mobile users spent 38% more time on tasks such as finding the weather and TV listings than they did in 2000, when users had fewer choices. Why?

Today’s mobile users are highly search-dominant. When we don’t specify which site they should use (and often even when we do), they turn first to their favorite search engine. Again, this means plenty of typing, which is slow, awkward, and error-prone on mobile devices.

What’s needed, says Nielsen (not surprisingly), are more sites designed specifically for mobile devices.

The study is unclear as to whether smartphone applications provide substantial benefit over browser-based sites tailored for mobile. That’s the argument Google Engineering Vice-President Vic Gundotra highlighted on Friday with his comment, “the browser, for economic reasons almost, will become the platform that matters.”

Still, on that note, Nielsen offers a telling anecdote:

In our current study, one user did really well — an iPhone user who had a weather application installed on the phone and used it to get the weather forecast in only 18 seconds (1/3 of the fastest speed from 2000).


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