Top 5 Mobile Site Fails

Marketers have a cruel streak. How else to explain the torments we inflict on consumers trying earnestly to connect with us on the mobile web? As smartphone penetration in the U.S. surges toward the 100 million mark, that’s 100 million cases of eyestrain, anxiety, and high blood pressure, not to mention countless injuries related to tripping over curbs and wandering into traffic while attempting to “pinch to zoom.”

Renowned usability expert Jakob Nielsen, a man not normally given to hyperbole, described this sorry state of affairs in dramatic terms in his 2009 report on mobile website usability: “Observing users suffer during our sessions reminded us of the very first usability studies we did with traditional websites in 1994. It was that bad.”

“But wait,” you’ll say. “That study is from back in the Jurassic Age of mobility, almost two years ago. Surely the mobile web has been transformed since then?” Well, no. We were going to transform the mobile web into something highly usable and useful, but then Angry Birds came along, resulting in a complete loss of productivity for 12 months at a cost of $100 billion to the U.S. economy. (These figures are approximate.)

So we’re way overdue to give consumers some relief from these abysmal mobile experiences. We’ve got our work cut out for us: dotMobi reports that only 29.7 percent of the web’s top 10,000 sites are optimized for mobile. And an increasingly mobile-savvy populace is demanding better experiences; they’re willing to let their thumbs do the walking to competitors that can deliver a mobile site that works. But since it is better to light a single fire under the marketing community than to curse the darkness that is the mobile web, I humbly offer some simple recommendations based on five of the most common mobile site fails.

Fail 1: Forgetting that mobile users are mobile

Marketers love to talk about context, as the question of what consumers are doing when they encounter your brand has a lot to do with the success of the encounter. In mobile, location is context: You not only need to care about where users are when they access your site, but you also need to care about it above all else. When I access the Lowe’s site on my Android, for instance, the company figures there’s a good chance I need to get to a Lowe’s right away. It offers to, uh, sniff my location (still not entirely comfortable with that phrase), and point me to the nearest store. But it also takes the location context a step further, touting its in-store pick-up service so my purchase can be ready when I get there.

Location-sniffing is a core capability of the mobile-friendly HTML5 platform, which means that it’s easily and inexpensively within the reach of every brand with retail locations. It’s therefore hard to accept the fact that when I visit Ikea on my Android, the company is unable to ascertain which continent I’m on. It forces me to find my country before I can find my store. Could this be narrowed down a bit? I think so.

Fail 2: Forgetting that humans have thumbs

3G smartphones created a monster: They allow full-featured traditional websites to be rendered on a mobile screen at reasonable speed, which has made us much lazier about actually building sites for mobile. Virtually all brands can now lay claim to having a mobile website, as long as that’s defined as “a site that shows up on a mobile device.” This leads to the problem of thumbs, which are the devices that humans mainly use to navigate their mobile devices. A site built for a 1024×768 screen cannot be successfully navigated by thumb alone on a 320×480 screen — unless success is defined by making users mistakenly click on as many links as possible in order to drive up the site’s traffic stats.

A good mobile site is built for the thumb. It prioritizes user task paths down to an essential few that can be delivered at a thumb-friendly size, helping the user to single-handedly drill down to key content without having to drop the toddler, hammer, or flaming torch they clutch in the other. The Wells Fargo mobile site, for instance, gives me just four links: my three most likely task paths, and an option to go the full site if I’m feeling all ambidextrous.

Fail 3: Forms that fail

Forms are the bane of the mobile experience. (Actually, friends who won’t get off Foursquare in restaurants are the bane of the mobile experience, but forms are a close second.) Since most sites still deliver poorly designed forms after a decade and a half on the traditional web, it’s not terribly surprising that mobile forms are even worse.

Travel-related forms have a special responsibility to be highly usable because travelers are short on time, out of their element, and under duress from having been made to watch a Jennifer Aniston in-flight movie. In the example below, Hertz delivers a form designed to sooth and satisfy: It requires no zooming, no side-to-side scrolling, and it breaks down a longer process into manageable steps. It doesn’t try to display every possible field, but rather delivers only the fields the user needs based on the information that person provides each step of the way.

National, by comparison, delivers its full web form, complete with massive drop-down location menus that are nearly impossible to use on mobile. In such cases, it’s easy to imagine that brand selection might be driven by the mobile experience alone — and that I’ll be driving off in a Hertz rental rather than one of National’s.

Fail 4: Losing your brand

Designed for the thumb, mobile sites are rarely sexy, which might be why creative agencies haven’t been vying for Cannes Lions on the strength of their mobile designs. But mobile usability doesn’t require monk-like austerity either. Online retailers especially tend to sacrifice their brand story on their mobile sites for the sake of delivering their product catalogs well. It’s a well-intentioned trade-off, but how can you sell your products if you don’t, well, sell your products?

The assumption is that mobile users aren’t really doing the top-of-the-funnel stuff — researching the brand, figuring out what the company stands for, and what makes it different. But that assumption is wrong; my agency recently completed its own in-aisle research on consumer use of retail mobile sites; the research found that consumers hit the mobile site throughout the funnel, from top-level research down to price comparisons. Other studies, including the CMB Consumer Pulse report, confirm this behavior as well.

As with everything else, the brand story needs to be optimized for mobile. Since you’re not going to be delivering the 3D World of Immersive Flash Awesomeness on your mobile site, creativity of a different sort is needed. Use words, for instance. Consider how you might tell your brand story uniquely for the mobile user. Take, for instance, outdoor retailer KEEN, whose mobile site is so barren that a tumbleweed drifted through on my last visit. Its new brand theme is “Recess is Back,” which would seem to offer rich possibilities for talking to users about the recess they might be taking while they’re out and about with their mobile device. But the theme is nowhere on the site.

Fail 5: Lipstick on the pig

Building mobile sites is not hard, but aligning big organizations behind what the site will and will not deliver can be harder than health care reform. The result is often an unfortunate half-measure: a mobile-ready homepage that dumps the unsuspecting clicker back into an unusable website.

This tactic might actually be worse than doing nothing. The change in navigation and layout from one experience to the next is disorienting to the user and more likely to prompt them to throw in the towel.

In the case of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center site shown below, the mobile homepage does a great job of anticipating user needs and prioritizing navigation based on the most frequent task paths on hospital sites: finding a physician and locating a facility. But the physician finder link drops the user into the web tool, complete with those notoriously long dropdown menus, while the location finder misses the perfect opportunity to integrate mobile navigation to help users en route to the hospital.

To avoid the lipstick-on-the-pig scenario, marketers need to build consensus internally for a complete mobile experience. The best way to do this is to rally your stakeholders around the decision-maker whose judgments count the most: the user. A good user-centered design process also helps to evangelize the importance of the mobile experience among the nay-saying stakeholders by making the users’ pain keenly felt.

As Jakob Nielsen could attest, there’s nothing quite like watching a user’s anguish to convince you that change needs to happen. Right after you level up on Angry Birds.

What’s wrong with geolocation?

On the subject of mobile check-in apps, I have been the unimpeachable Mayor of WTF. I enjoy the mild dopamine kick of meaningless milestones as much as the next digital marketer — a condition that comes from years of monitoring ad click-through rates — but try as I might, I just can’t do geo. Foursquare sits in the dustbin of my unused apps, taunting me with the prospect of countless unearned badges. Facebook Places reminds me that it’s now possible to neglect my social network in multiple channels.

So, I had my own special interest in the outcome of White Horse’s recent study of geolocation app usage among 437 smartphone users. I wanted to know whether I was the lone Luddite in a universe of happy location-sharers.

Nope, not alone.

The study found that while 39 percent of smartphone users who know about location-based services (LBS) are also using them, the remaining 61 percent are thus far choosing to sit out this dance. At first glance, that may sound like a glass-half-full for LBS, but when you look at the reasons why most smartphone users aren’t avidly broadcasting their arrival at the laser hair removal clinic, you start to see the tell-tale ruts from consumers digging their heels in.

Privacy topped the list of concerns expressed by non-users. That’s not too surprising, because let’s face it: we marketers tend to do the absolute minimum required to reassure consumers about privacy. Even when we’re being well-behaved about how we’re using the data we collect, we tend not to want to bring it up with users, lest we shatter the illusion that we’re simply giving them stuff for free because we like them. We expect that anyone who [shudder] really cares about privacy will read our fine-print policy. As the recent Apple geotracking scandal handily illustrates, the minimalist approach to privacy is a recipe for backlash.

The bigger revelation from our survey was that a combined 45 percent of non-users either perceived no benefit to geolocation services, or saw them as redundant to other ways of connecting. No benefit? Obviously they have not tasted the sweet victory of earning the Lookin’ for Love Badge.

Clearly consumers want more from LBS, and we marketers have an unfortunate tendency to translate that phrase as “consumers want discounts.” Not so, according to our study and chart below. Only 8 percent of consumers saw discounts and rewards as the most important benefit of a location based service, and only 4 percent are really jacked about the badges (and you know who you are.) One might counter-argue that consumers aren’t excited about LBS discounts because the discounts haven’t been big enough to get excited about; however, Groupon’s recent acquisition of Pelago may put that argument to the test.

For most marketers, there’s a longer but more rewarding path to LBS success than discounting or badging. Our survey found that 41 percent of consumers see the LBS social connection as most important, and another 2 percent especially prize the recommendations that those connections provide. In our view, these data points are a blinking red arrow directing marketers to the real opportunity: we need to help consumers make better use of their trusted contacts to get real-time recommendations.

Our Digital Futures Group calls this concept “guided exploration.” The simple idea is that a given consumer will try a new restaurant not because of a $5 discount, but because the few friends that really know the foodie scene have recommended it. They don’t care as much about what their whole network thinks (sorry, Facebook) or what everyone in town thinks (sorry, Yelp); they want to tap specific personal networks for specific interests.

The new LBS Color, which was released to considerable buzz after our study had already been produced, offers a form of guided exploration with the concept of “elastic networks,” based on real-time proximity. You can connect with everyone standing near you at a Decemberists concert, for instance, with reasonable assurance that members of this impromptu network have similar tastes in music and could recommend other bands worth checking out. Relevance doesn’t equal trust, of course, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Marketers can get into the guided exploration act by building their own LBS experiences around their brand’s own area of expertise, using white-label platforms like Double Dutch. For instance, an outdoor apparel company could start an LBS featuring local hiking trails, and users could connect only with their outdoorsy friends, and not with their father-in-law whose idea of getting in touch with nature is watching Discovery Channel. Brands can also build such experiences on existing networks, with tools like Foursquare “Tips,” which allow the brand to play the trusted advisor role.

Finally, I hesitate to bring up the subject of hard work, but there’s no substitute for it when it comes to making LBS effective for marketers. Our study found a very high correlation between LBS usage and frequent social network updates: 60 percent of LBS users are daily social networkers, as opposed to only 39 percent of non-users. That means the squeakiest wheels on your brand’s Facebook page are also the consumers most likely to talk about your brand on an LBS, and/or participate in the brand experiences you offer on an LBS.

By itself, this finding is not surprising: an LBS is, after all, a social network in its own right, so we’d expect habitual networkers to continue that behavior across channels. Simply put, the people who talk about your brand in social media will also talk about it in mobile. The best way to influence that behavior is exactly the same as it has ever been: take excellent care of your customers so they’ll say nice things about you.

The social-mobile connection is also reminder that marketers need to move across channels, just as their customers do, by promoting their mobile experiences in their social venues, and sharing their location-based content produced by their followers in all channels. Brands can also look to their most avid social followers to pilot their mobile initiatives. As your brand ambassadors become more deeply networked across devices, so does your brand.

If LBS players can get out in front of privacy issues and make mobile connections more relevant to what consumers really want, it’s a near-certainty that adoption will reach critical mass, and more marketers will jump on board. If that happens, I may even be willing to give up my mayorship.