Reviewing Nielsen’s Defense in .net Point by Point

In the great mobile debate between Jakob Nielsen and others (highlighted in .net today by positioning Jakob against the formidable Josh Clark), I definitely side with Josh and others who embrace responsive web design. Jakob’s advice has alway been astonishingly anti-design, as if design doesn’t matter (and that’s where he’s always been wrong: “Design is everything,” as Paul Rand famously and correctly said).

Yet I always like hunting for nuance, because in debates between “experts”, things sometimes get pretty black and white. So I thought it would be a nice challenge for me to search for nuance in this case, in particular, as someone who never enjoys reading Mr. Nielsen’s suggestions: is there still some merit therein?

Let’s take a look point by point:

JN: “I would assume that most industrial-scale sites would be generated from a single back-end product database and content management system…”

Comment: Well, nothing like starting with an assumption, Jakob. They’re invariably wrong. And I can certainly speak to appearances being nothing like reality. For example, I used to work at one of the largest public universities in the United States. It’s “web site” looks like it must be hosted by some gargantuan CMS, just as Jakob might assume. However, in reality, this industrial scale of web site is actually thousands of web sites, hosted in dozens of different ways. So it is with many large enterprises.

JN: “All of this is really a matter of budgets relative to the expected profits from serving customers better by optimising the user interface to their specific circumstances. Small organisations can’t do so.”

Comment: Well, yes and no. There is a nugget of truth in Nielsen’s observation here, that smaller organizations aren’t necessarily going to pivot quickly and redesign for mobile. But again, this can be just as true for a large organization (commented about above) that is actually a federation of many, many small organizations each doing its own thing.

Moreover, there are degrees of optimization and, in fact, probably should be degrees of optimization. I argue in my second book that some mobile optimization is better than none at all. And when I say this, I don’t mean that an interim solution should ever be accompanied by a proud planting of a flag on the summit of Mt. Mobile. “We did it! Layout and navigation are now responsive!”

Well, great: maybe you start with optimizing layout and navigation in some responsive manner. It’s a fantastic start, but it’s just a start. Though most importantly, in response to Nielsen: small organizations can indeed progressively enhance for mobile. And they don’t need to get it perfect at first (in fact, getting it “perfect” in one pass is a myth anyway). And if that’s easier and faster then starting with an entirely new mobile first approach, that might be the best way to start. It’s better than not starting at all.

JN: “…To treat users well, you should optimise their ability to do tasks with the device at hand. If somebody only has a mobile phone, they are ill served by a design that’s awkward to use on mobiles.”

Comment: Yes.

JN: “Studies show that content is harder to comprehend when viewed through a small viewport with less context than what’s visible on a bigger screen. Thus, we can enhance mobile users’ understanding of the information by writing shorter content that’s easier to understand. What matters is the amount of information in the user’s brain, not the word count on the screen. And people understand more with content that’s optimised for their device.”

Comment: Apparently Nielsen has never read a book on a smartphone. I go through one per week. I would argue that content is harder to comprehend if it’s garbage, badly written or edited, or simply not meeting my needs. Length alone is not a variable that determines whether content presentation is successful.

JN: “There are at least three different ways of implementing different user interfaces for different devices: 1.Each version lives at a different URL, 2. The same URL serves up different versions, depending on the device used to request the page, 3. The same code is transmitted to all devices, and the client side transforms this into the different designs, using responsive design. As long as each user sees the appropriate design, the choice between these implementation options should be an engineering decision and not a usability decision.”

Comment: This may be the most indicting thing that Nielsen says. Since when is an engineering decision not a usability decision?! The disconnection of engineering and usability is utterly ridiculous, and I don’t think even merits additional comment. Anyone who has used differently-engineered products of any kind (IRL or digital) knows that “back-end” engineering decisions have enormous impacts on usability. Enough said.

“.net: Why have you made no mention of using Responsive Design? JN: Because I was writing about user experience, not implementation.”

Comment: Odd, Mr. Nielsen, because your article is full of suggestions for implementation (e.g. building a separate mobile site), not to mention that you sell expensive PDFs about “mobile design guidelines” that, I would surmise, are about implementation.

Conclusion: I’m not sure that this analysis adds much to what Josh Clark already wrote for .net. I generally get pretty bent out of shape reading Nielsen, and my picking it apart this time didn’t result in much of a difference in reaction. Yet I would say that even Jakob gets one thing right: mobile optimization is important. Yet rather than make it easier, Jakob’s advice is to go through the extra work of developing a separate mobile site; extra trouble for the owner, yet less value for the customer.

Mobile optimization is much more within reach when done responsively and progressively. And, in my opinion (as well as many other’s) taking a responsive and progressive approach is much more conducive to actively usability testing your incremental improvements along the way.

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