When Google sent out warning notices in 2015 to website owners whose sites were monitored in Webmaster Tools, it was game on, with SEO’s in hot pursuit. Mobile was the new watchword.
Now that design for “mobile first” is strongly recommended by search engines, user interface design for mobile has created confusion and for many companies, a sudden need for a new crop of skilled developers and designers trained in the nuances of the mobile experience. How do you code for both search engine mobile requirements and user behavior for mobile? What happens to desktop versions? And if we go to the trouble of changing our designs yet again, what’s the lifetime warranty on these changes? The investment should make sense, right?
Feels Like Target Practice
Mobile web design became a new priority when Google and Bing introduced tools built to test web pages to see if they passed their new criteria for mobile search. According to Google, 60 percent of searches are now performed with mobile devices. That percentage is not universally accepted, however, and some of their research may appear to be biased or based on tiny samplings of users from specific age groups. Nevertheless, for SEO’s, this was “shots fired” and they responded.
Google, never one to be forthcoming with actual instructions at first, leaked clues for meeting their acceptance criteria and their reasons for changes to their bots’ behaviors, algorithms, and search engine results pages. The tests needed to pass boiled down to 4 criteria tied to page speed and there are generously detailed instructions on how to make repairs if you know where to look. Like most things coming from search engines, it takes a bit of time to tell us what’s going on unless you ask the correct question, which is, “How do I help search engines generate more revenue?”
If you are interested in meeting your own business, functional, and target market requirements on your own terms, you will need to understand mobile user behavior. Google and Bing chose speed as the number one requirement. Humans have the attention span of a bee. There’s nectar inside the flower or there isn’t – we don’t wait long to find out.
Fast and Frustrating
Every company that invested yesterday in a separate design for mobile and desktop or put their mobile version on a separate domain or sub-domain now faces new requirements for tap points, server requests, smaller viewports, hamburger menu icons, and the demise of favorite design fads such as parallax and carousels. Decisions are made on whether to keep sidebars, long forms with fields that only marketers care about, mega menus with product images inside them, and forms that demand a user action to make it go away. For ad driven properties, ads that cover up content on already compromised mobile device real estate present more opportunities for user abandonment.
I haven’t even gotten to accessibility requirements, text to speech technology, touch screens, rank implications, and mobile user behavior as they specifically pertain to your company.
In other words, the four-test criteria Google and Bing run web pages through barely touch the full gambit of requirements necessary for mobile design. The only way to know for sure if your website or application is built for mobile devices is by manual testing, emulation testing with older models, cross browser testing, user testing and testing with users “in the wild”. How do you know what to test for mobile? This is when you hire a qualified person or company that performs mobile usability and mobile testing audits.
Remove the Mystery
Understanding how your target market uses your site or application should never be a mystery, but unless you or your company have the money to gather and interpret the data, it typically is. When I perform a usability and conversions site audit, I ask for mobile device data and user behavior patterns. Large companies usually have digital marketing staff who monitor and run reports, but smaller companies more often do not. They are more inclined to guess and tell me to not be too concerned with mobile testing because their visitors are using desktops. Even if the data on mobile devices falls below that of desktop, the trends are changing and so is the technology driving them. I recommend that if you’re going to invest money in any design or re-design, prepare for the future.
Adobe released its latest findings for Europe in February 2017.
However, smartphone visits continue to grow, increasing in Europe by 156% since 2014. In comparison, traffic from desktop and laptop computers fell by 25% in the same period, while tablet visits increased by 6% but the share of visits remained fairly static. — Adobe
For ecommerce, the trends are worth tracking. Adobe reports that smartphone traffic and revenue for retail will overtake desktop by the first quarter of 2018. North and South America and Europe have the highest mobile broadband penetration rate at just under 80%. The global average is 50%. Half of the planet’s human inhabitants have a cell phone. In some countries, the technological infrastructure is weak, fostering a dependency on mobile. This has helped with online banking and sending emergency broadcasts during a crisis.
What is more compelling is the user behavior for multiple device usage, where certain tasks are more commonly started from a handheld device and completed later in a desktop or laptop. Bad designs create some of this behavior. Necessity creates others, such as not having a credit card handy or the time to fill out a long form on a cell phone. Another overlooked area is older people whose computer habits are different and often ignored by young developers.
What If My Website isn’t Mobile Friendly?
You’re in good company.
First, if you are the owner of any web-based property expected to be accessed via the Internet from all computer devices, including screen readers and software designed to deliver content in alternative methods, it is imperative that you review your plans, performance data and have hired skilled staff dedicated to keeping up with all the technologies, standards and guidelines.
If you are an SEO assigned to a web property that is tanking in search engines, you are aware that mobile is one of the reasons. It’s not the only cause though. Web sites built on content management systems supported by plug-ins and third party software like shopping carts are facing issues. Ask any developer facing a firing squad by business management and various other stakeholders right now. It’s been chaos out there.
There is surprisingly little in the way of design assistance for mobile with regards to user interface, mobile user behavior and usability. With forms and apps, responsive guidelines are plentiful and have been around for years. Bootstrap out of the box is a start but their grid layouts are copied and reproduced with very little imagination. For WordPress themes, there is no end to the issues I’m seeing and facing with each client, existing or new. Some redesigns are outright head-banging torture.
If you own a site built on a cheap WYSIWYG platform, it was never going to live past 3 months anyway. Computer technology changes quickly and their user interface layouts may not be backed by user experience and human factors principles. In other words, if your web property is a graphic designer dream page, it is not likely to be mobile ready and even less likely to pass WCAG2.1 compliance.
Since 2013 and especially notably in 2016, there has been a surge in lawsuits against retail, banking, education and travel web sites by special needs users unable to use them. The requirements for Section 508 were updated in January 2017 and now referred to as Section 508 Refresh. WCAG2.0 guidelines were updated April 19, 2017 to WCAG2.1. The guidelines for mobile accessibility are not standard between Android and iOS, adding more research for app developers.
I’ll be writing about accessibility in my The User Is Out There column and digging up user behavior studies to help you make better decisions for your website visitors. Other topics from me will be mobile testing, usability testing, accessibility testing, and stalking people to find out what they want to be tested.
Search engines know that to please their users, you must take care of your own.
For now, here are a few resources:
Raven Tools has a Site Auditor tool that not only discovers every possible mobile performance failure, but provides help for repairs.
Luke Wroblewski – Mobile forms and apps; now a Product Director at Google.
Cindy Krum – Mobile testing and mobile marketing pioneer
For fun – About the Hamburger Menus
Smashing Magazine – Mobile Category