Designing for mobile web users

I often reflect on the first time I designed a mobile website. This was to be a dedicated website for mobile users, Responsive Web Design was merely a twinkle in Ethan Marcotte’s eye at that time. Reminiscing about those days, I often shudder at the assumptions we made about how people would use the website.

I want you to ponder the following simple questions:

  1. How are you reading this?
  2. Where are you reading this?

I suspect, the answer to the first question is “on my mobile”. According to 2014 figures, released by the UK Office of National Statistics, 53% of the UK population use the mobile web every day (vs 76% in total). 55% of British people use the internet to read news and articles. There’s a decent chance I’m wrong in that assumption as the target audience for this article may not be representative of the UK. It could be that a larger percentage of you are on mobile due to being more engaged with technology. Conversely, you may be on a desktop computer, reading this whilst procrastinating. If that’s the case, you’ve come this far so you may as well finish the article!

Those of you who are reading this on a mobile device, think about the answer to the second question. I doubt that the answer is “running for the bus”. That assumption around a user’s context is still prevalent even now.

People who visit your website on mobile, probably aren’t “running for the bus”.

How do I know which features to offer mobile users?

Whilst carrying out user research on our clients’ projects, I’ve noticed an increasing trend for users to start a journey on one device and finish it on another. There doesn’t seem to be a particular pattern, one person might start deciding which product to purchase during their lunch break, on a work desktop, then buy it on their settee using a smartphone that evening. Another may start their journey on a tablet at home, check some information with a smartphone when discussing the idea with friends and return to a tablet to complete the purchase.

There are two ways you can address that reality:

  1. Methodically identify which features are appropriate for your users in each context
  2. Make the whole thing available on mobile, tablet and desktop

Tailoring the features available to a user, dependent on context, could potentially make your digital product feel more intuitive. However, it could equally come across as restrictive and frustrate users who just want to access the same content regardless of the device. One of the cardinal sins of UX is designing something which makes the user feel stupid. Humans generally learn by building up an understanding of how something works, based on past experience.

A Flat White, thankfully labelled as a “Flat White” on the Receipt.

Imagine that you’re ordering coffee from your favourite local café. You order a double espresso. After paying by card, you’re handed a till receipt and walk to the end of the counter to await your drink. You notice the descriptive text on your receipt says “Double Ristretto”.

Assuming that you’re not a trained barista (a dangerous assumption in a coffee obsessed industry), would you be concerned that the drink which was about to be lovingly crafted was wrong? Would you ask someone? How would that make you feel?

Inconsistencies in experience distract users from their original goal. This may result in a lost sale, it may result in an unnecessary enquiry and it’s likely to reduce the change that the user will return.

Instead, we recommend you make all of your features available across mobile, tablet and desktop.

Should we opt for responsive or adaptive design?

Whilst each approach has it’s technical merits, consider whether you can guarantee the following:

  1. Your user base will always be on the specific devices you are targeting
  2. You can afford to support and develop several disparate versions of the website
  3. You will have the time, budget and organisational will to continue to create new adaptive versions of the site as user needs change.

If you haven’t answered “Yes” to all of those, I’d recommend responsive design.

How should we approach the design process?

Here, we like to take a “mobile first” approach to design responsive websites. That doesn’t mean we don’t put the user at the heart of our approach. Nor does it mean that we compromise on which features are actually built. Instead, we design user interfaces at the smallest possible break point first. This helps us focus on the essential elements of the design, rather than designing something which works amazingly well on desktop and then trying to crush it to fit on a small screen.

Trying to fit something designed for a larger space into something much smaller, is rarely enjoyable and can have catastrophic results.

As the key interactions take shape, you should conduct usability testing, across the different sized devices people use. Thankfully, with the remote user research options available, this isn’t prohibitively expensive.

If one feature isn’t working on a particular device, form a hypothesis on how to resolve it, (based on your past usability study results), iterate on the design and test again.

Following this formula will help you design better experiences for your mobile users.


There are no mobile users. There are users who may prefer to use their smartphone, tablet or desktop but people rarely use just one device. Design consistent experiences and validate your assumptions rigorously with real users.

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