On not quite agreeing with Jakob Nielsen

Web usability guru Jakob Nielsen published an important post this week on the question of whether it's necessary to build more than one website to cope with today's mobile web. If you're a web designer or are commissioning a website you should read it: see Mobile Site vs Full Site.

Quite a few designers have indeed read it, and it's safe to say that it hasn't been universally popular, as selected tweets evidence. I could have picked out many more. Jakob Nielsen has always been a controversial figure within the web design world. His longstanding Alertbox column is deliberately provocative, often harshly critical of design sensibilities that don't strictly abide by his rather severe standards for website usability. Jakob, whose online persona evokes something of the air of a puritan Danish sermoniser, tends not to make suggestions: he makes rules.

Well thumbed

Inconveniently for designers desiring a free reign, many of Nielsen's rules are based on exhaustive user research undertaken by his agency, the Nielsen Norman Group. He certainly hasn't got everything right: notoriously, he persisted in arguing for many years that designers should never use link colours other than the default shade of blue, no matter whether it clashed horribly with the rest of the design. But many, many other recommendations that have emerged from the Group's research have been accepted and over time become core principles of website usability. I for one remember well the impact of Nielsen's book Designing Web Usability, published back in 2000. At that time it was widely recognised as the most important book every published about web design, and I think it should still be on any new designer's reading list.

So everything Nielsen says about the mobile web is well worth reading. And he has had a lot to say of late. The essential argument of this latest piece is that if you can afford it you should have separate websites optimised for the different strengths and weaknesses of mobile and desktop browsing devices. To summarise:

Good mobile user experience requires a different design than what's needed to satisfy desktop users. Two designs, two sites, and cross-linking to make it all work.

Much of the article is dedicated to outlining the significant ways in which the mobile web experience differs from that on the desktop, and to making the uncontroversial point that a website user interface must adapt to ensure its optimised for the device on which its being viewed. For example content must be as succinct as possible for all users, but especially for mobile users. Navigation patterns are different - there's a discussion of the 'fat finger' problem encountered by mobile users when faced with dense menus. And mobile users can't afford to download unnecessary features that might appear relatively unobtrusive on a larger desktop display. He writes:

The desktop user interface platform differs from the mobile user interface platform in many ways, including interaction techniques, how people read, context of use, and the plain number of things that can be grasped at a glance. This inequality is symmetric: mobile users need a different design than desktop users. But, just as much, desktop users need a different design than mobile users.

All very sensible, and based on a lot of user research. The controversy consists in Nielsen's concluding argument that it is therefore necessary to build separate sites for mobile and desktop:

[Y]ou could just optimize the entire website for mobile in the first place. Then, giving mobile users the 'full' site wouldn't cause them any trouble. While true, this analysis neglects the penalty imposed on desktop users when you give them a design that's suboptimal for bigger screens and better input devices.

The complaint is that here, and with his previous mobile web posts, Nielsen hasn't properly engaged with the responsive web design methodology developed by designers over the past couple of years, which has shown that in many cases - not all - it is possible to build a single site that adapts according to the device on which it is viewed. Responsive web design isn't a silver bullet, but it has most certainly emerged as a credible design solution for organisations that simply don't have the budget to develop and maintain separate websites. Google responsive web design or take a look at a showcase site like mediaqueri.es and you'll immediately see just how much work has and is being done to refine and further develop this approach.

Nielsen's rather peremptory dismissal of this important development in contemporary web design is, I think, bound up with his Group's focus on their core audience and client base: large corporations. The Group tends to recommend that clients take the most expensive, most conservative option, in this case the development of separate mobile and desktop sites: cost isn't really an issue. Responsive web design is, fundamentally, a methodology borne of necessity: a grassroots solution developed by designers working to tight budgets and schedules for clients who can only afford one website, and who need it to work as well as possible beyond the desktop.

I'll continue to subscribe to Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox, and greatly value the advice he and his Group have shared over the years. But unless you are working for a company with big pockets I wouldn't take all of it as gospel, no matter how authoritatively expressed.

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