Jakob Nielsen vs. the World: The Mobile Smackdown

So, there's been another dust-up about mobile web. This time, it's Jakob Nielsen versus Josh Clark (and, seemingly the world) on .net Magazine, and then again with Bruce Lawson on Smashing Magazine (though Smashing was less strident). Basically, it's mobile version vs. responsive web design (RWD); tailored content vs. "one web."

Every time I read spats like this--or become embroiled in one--the thing that gets lost in the shuffle is the user. Not the hypothetical user, or you, the over-knowledgeable web professional, but the daily consumer of your web product.

Instead, we argue over topics that don't really matter to the person on a moble device. Here's a few to get your blood boiling.

Issue 1: Implementation Obsession

When reading about mobile web, most posts I see skip right to the "how" (RWD, CSS, media queries, etc.) and mostly avoid the "why" and "what for." And when they are discussed on the web, they feel like an afterthought. I worry that the desire for the latest coding technique will come before user research and a proper examination of business goals--that many of us will skip from "we need a mobile solution" (be it web or native), to "we need responsive web design."

Idealists may argue with me, but I've lived through depressing meetings with marketers directly asking that we find some way to use AJAX.

Issue 2: Mobile First Abuse

When pressed on the "why" and "what for?" the knee-jerk reaction of many web folks and bloggers is to point to Mobile First. I think Mobile First is a great process--it is clearly user-centered design.

But it's hard to do mobile first responsive web design when you're not tearing down your entire site and rebuilding it from scratch. For massive corporate and institutional websites, with all their tasks, audiences and 3rd-party systems, a mobile first redesign is a gigantic line item in the budget.

And while we may secure that bugetary line item and embrace RWD or some create-once-publish-everywhere technique, what will you serve to mobile users for all those months (years?) that it takes to launch the new site? Worse yet, what if your line item never gets funded, or you just launched a redesign prior to the acceptance of RWD?

Are you going to let your users continue to pinch and zoom your website, muttering to themselves? No. You're going to make some kind of mobile version. This doesn't make you an old fogey or an idiot. This makes you user-centered.

Issue 3: Every UX person or designer should know how to code.

Somewhere in the comments on the .net article, someone was picking on Jakob Nielsen because he didn't really seem to know much about coding. This led to the usual "every design and UX person should know everything about my passion: code." (Insert other job titles and passions for a fun Mad Lib game!)

Sadly, this crops up all the time. The truth is, when you're working on a large project, you need a team with specialized skillsets, not a one-man band.

I work hard to stay up to speed on UX, but I do not have the bandwidth or the desire to keep up with every graphic design trend and new coding technqiue unless it directly pertains to my discipline. And, at that, my knowledge is limited because I do not code or design with any frequency or advanced skill that is required to make the magic happen.

Instead, I prefer to think about how information is organized and the application of interaction design techniques. I like to conduct usability tests and dig through analytics to get a glimpse of user behavior. If fair is fair, and I'm expected to know the specifics about CSS, HTML5, Javascript, and any number of object-oriented programming languages or frameworks, then shouldn't developers start helping me out with sorting through piles of information, and maybe conduct a user test or two?

The part where I stop whining about crazy web comments.

Just thought I'd throw this in there. Awkward segue!

What I have to say about Jakob Nielsen's mobile stand

First, I applaud Jakob Nielsen and NNG for conducting tons of meaningful user research and then sharing some of it for free. I'm glad they exist and do the work they do. It makes my job easier, and I like that I can generally trust their findings because they are grounded in actual user research.

And here's all I have to say in defense of Jakob Nielsen's original Alerbox article.

According to his own article, the user testing that resulted in this mobile best practices article was conducted as early as 2009 and as late as 2011. Let's cast our gaze back in time and consider responsive web design in 2009. There wasn't much (any?). Ethan Marcotte's Responisive Web Design book was only published in 2011, and that's really when the technique became widely acknowledged and implemented. Before then, one can only guess (since I won't pay $200+ for the report) that NNG was testing sites whose mobile implementations varied or were nonexistant.

His recommendations may have been dated based on the advancement of technology. However, if you were building a non-RWD mobile version for any number of legitimate reasons, isn't this information important?

And of course people can have a beef with his implementation recommendation, but let's agree that you have to do what's best with what you have, and what's best for your users before we get picky about how you do it. (So, bad on everyone!)

And lastly, the thing that disturbed me the most: Why are we so dismissive of user research in a world filled with opinion and disconnection from the actual consumers of our products? We should ask more questions of the research findings, and do less shouting.