Category Archives: Sightings

Great Works of Fiction Presents: The Mobile Context

I love fiction. UFOs, unicorns, faith healing, the Mobile Web, the Mobile Context, psychics. Speaking of which…

I’m sure many of you have heard of cold reading. Cold reading is one of many toolkits used by psychics to convince others (and often themselves) that they know more about a person than they actually do. One of the more well-known and obvious cold reading techniques is the use of simple, broad-stroke statistics. There are lots of people in the world named John. Chances are, if I looked you in the eye, contorted my face, feigned mind-agony and said, “I see a J. Someone in your life… James? John? Someone is having some serious financial trouble,” I’d have a good chance of being technically correct. And that’s not even a good read. But the thing that makes ruses like this work is that you, the user, are filling in the blanks for me. You search your brain and you find John. Or James. Oh you mean Jason, my cousin’s sister’s boyfriend, who does have financial trouble.” Two weeks later, you’ll swear I knew about Jason’s stolen credit card.

In the Mobile Context—you know, that magical fairy-tale place we go whenever we use the Web on our tablets or phones—users apparently don’t need to fill in the blanks. The People Who Make Websites make these decisions. In the Mobile Context, you see, people change. The slide lock on their phone transforms them into beings with different needs. And I use an Android phone, which means my needs are different than an iOS user, because the user experience is obviously not as important to me. Cough.

Cold reading happens in the Mobile Context. Some might find the above sarcasm a rehash of Mark Kirby’s wonderful mind reading assertion. But it’s not, because if I could really mind-read, I would really know what you’re thinking. But I don’t. So I’m not mind-reading, I’m cold reading. And you’re not able to fill in the blanks for me, because a web page is mostly a one-way thing. I can’t quickly change my story by watching your face for signs that I’m on the right track. So when I decide to make decisions for you, I’m potentially sabotaging the experience for the both of us.

So what do we Web-makers do? We infer things based on the device you’re using. And statistics. Analytics. Which means we’ll probably be right much of the time, or some of the time. But there is someone who is right all of the time when it comes to knowing which task a user wants to do in a given situation, even in pretend-universes like Mobile Context: the user, right? If I walk into a coffee shop where they also sell sandwiches, you might be wrong to assume I want a coffee. But if you ask me what I want, and I say, “I’d like a sandwich,” there’s a pretty decent chance that I want a sandwich, yes? And you didn’t get distracted by the fact that 87% of your clients order coffee. And the most beautiful part is this: you didn’t have to put up new menus and change the furniture because I’m a sandwich person. You just need to offer me the choice of a sandwich or a coffee and guess what? I’ll make the choice and order my sandwich.

At Mobilism this year I met Christiaan Lustig, a nice guy and web professional who’s doing a lot of research into responsive design related subjects. He recently wrote an article about top task analysis. The article was actually about many things and it seems so fair to each point of view that I may be missing a single defined argument, but prioritizing top tasks based on user’s needs seems to be the gist of the article. I can agree with that. However, the article also used some examples that really show some current industry thinking I strongly disagree with. Here’s an excerpt from an example about a bank site (go take a look) that just kills me:

“More than 50 per cent of their website visitors are on a mobile device. And 98 per cent of those users go directly to the online banking login.”

That means 49 per cent of all visitors go directly to the online banking login.[…]

First, take a minute to recover from the shock that a majority of banking customers actually plan to do some banking on a bank website. Then notice that we’re provided with only the mobile side of the statistics. 49 percent of all visitors is just plain wrong, unless none of the desktop users go directly to the banking login. We can’t learn from conclusions unless we know what led to them. What do the desktop users do on the site?

To be clear, I’m not criticizing the author of the article at all. I am criticizing the thinking and assumptions behind what many organizations are doing in and around content and responsive web design.

Looking at the screenshots next to the article’s bank example, you can’t help but agree with the author that the mobile rendering of the site seems to be more task oriented. But is that because desktop users really want stupid fluff over tasks? Or is the mobile version of the page the only one for which the Web People seriously considered the needs of the user? In other words, does content really need to change for a mobile context, or do we simply need better content all across the board? I bet the desktop site would be better if they just chucked it and used the “mobile” site for everything. Is the mobile view better because it’s better? Or is it simply better in contrast to a sucky desktop view with irrelevant content?

This example whittles existing content down to a small series of possible tasks on the mobile view. If these are all the tasks a user can do on the site, great. If not, why not? Is it cold in here? Is it cold reading in here?

Let me make a long story short: just make quality, relevant content with appropriate tasks, and offer all of these to all users, unless said content or functionality is dependent upon device capabilities (such as a camera). Then make it easy for the user to decide what it is they want to do. It’s like… web development all over again, isn’t it?

I really don’t see any reasons for the content of a page to change completely under any device-related circumstances. In fact, for purposes of clarity and findability, why not go out on a limb and actually use URLs to refer to specific content or functionality, instead of trying to morph homepage content into something different on a phone and hoping you get the assumptions right? example.com/login, example.com/plan, example.com/status. You’re allowed to have a page which simply contains the tasks and content it contains. Really, it’s okay. It’s responsive design; we’re not making shapeshifters.

Alter the design as you will. Visually, content order is most likely linear on phones, so you’ll account for that. Text size, link and button size, image (file) size… there are plenty of things to consider. Of course you might not be able to have that Really Important Canvas Animation. Of course you’ll want to be able to use some device capabilities like your phone’s camera if that’s available. That’s logical and fine. But if something is essential content, functionality, or common sense on all platforms and you’re only providing it on some, you’re doing it wrong, unless your site or app is unavailable on other platforms.

Users are ultimately the experts in deciding what they want to do on your site. Make it possible, make it easy, then get out of the way and let them fill in the blanks. They’ll attribute the good experience to you.

Personal publishing via web services

Jon Tan and Jon Gibbons recently launched a website for Denna Jones. It’s a great-looking site, and it makes no use of a (single, local) content management system. Rather, the content is pulled from several web services, such as Flickr and Magnolia.

This is an interesting idea, but I’m on the fence about the approach. While the site is a coherent whole, it’s an *automatically generated* coherent whole; the author herself may not even be aware of the state of her site at any given moment in time. In effect, it seems to me to be a very well-designed, well thought-out feed aggregator. A fan of Jeremy Keith‘s approach, I’ve always tended to see these services as *extras*, at most supplemental bits of not-necessarily-related content.

On the other hand, this isn’t a bad thing. If the aggregated web services are often used by the author, then it’s most likely no chore for her to log in to four or five sites instead of one CMS: one to add photos, one to add bookmarks, another to blog, etc. While I’m so busy doing other things that I don’t have time to attend to this site [I haven’t even really *designed* the thing yet], Denna is creating bits of *microcontent* which are combined into something bigger, perhaps more meaningful in surprising ways. Her site is updated as she tweets. That seems quite effortless.

Perhaps I need to get over the fear of the fragility of web services, the idea that they can and sometimes do hiccup, burp, vomit or completely self-destruct. The *dependency* on these sites. Maybe it’s a matter of choosing the services owned by the big players, just to play it safe. But wait! We want *control*. Our own favorite content management system, tweaked just so. Argh.

Web 2.0 is about reusing information, and Web 3.0 will be about making information more meaningful by defining and discovering relationships between all these bits of information. The Jons are onto something with Denna’s site. There’s a transition here. And now others will follow.

It’s such a logical, natural approach. It’s the gorilla on the table. I like it. I think.