The Case Against Mobile Specific Websites

It’s on everyone’s lips, it graces countless blog posts and every day more people are talking about it. Mobile. Some claim it’s the future of the web… and why shouldn’t they? The stats are overwhelming. Users are adopting and using mobile at an alarming rate. Suffice to say, this year mobile is the big web design topic. Yet, despite the excitement it’s already an out of date approach.

In my opinion, it’s time to stop designing mobile websites. Dramatic, I know… but my thoughts are not unfounded. Despite the popularity of mobile, we can no longer say “mobile browsing is on the rise.” Instead we must realize that  the way people use the web as a whole is changing. But before I dive into how people are using the web now, let’s cover how people used to browse using mobile devices.

A Brief History of Mobile (Users)

The mobile web used to be hard to access, use, and, well… all around hard. As a result, people avoided using it when possible. Early devices offered users webpages with little more than text. Furthermore not only were connections speeds slow, mobile data was expensive. To make mobile browsing at desirable, website owners provided paired-down, mobile-specific sites that contained little more than the most commonly accessed content. This made sense at the time because if you had a choice you wouldn’t be browsing on your mobile phone.

That of course changed with the iPhone. Equipped with a browser that made accessing normal websites tolerable, the iPhone had more users reaching for their phone throughout the day. That said, the mobile web was still a burden compared to “fixed browsing” (ie: laptop or desktop.) Connections were getting better, but they still were lackluster and generally speaking users hadn’t adapted to the smaller screen and new method of browsing.

Because mobile was still a “next best alternative” to fixed browsing, us web designers threw out the word “context” in mobile conversations. What context was the user browsing the site? Why was it so important they access the site from their phone where they couldn’t wait for a desktop version? How can we remove everything they are unlikely to access and only show them what is contextually relevant?

In actuality this was a good plan. Most users did browse from a mobile device while on the go, in line at the bank and when they couldn’t easily access their desktop. But then something changed. Mobile became less mobile.

Mobile Browsing or Anytime Browsing?

Two major shifts have occurred in a short period. First, users have become accustomed to browsing the web on a mobile device. Where mobile browsing was once a difficult and daunting task, frequent use of mobile websites and devices has sharpened the skills of many smartphone owners. Widespread skill adoption happens all the time; even typing was once a skill reserved for occasions when handwriting was too informal.

Second, the number of browser-enabled devices has — for lack of a better word — exploded. Obviously, we have smartphones and tablets, but what about netbooks? Game consoles? E-book readers? mp3 players? Now there are even digital cameras with web browsers in them. In the early days of mobile, you only had to worry about cellphones and computers (practically speaking.) Now you can no longer predict what type of device a user will access your site with.

Visit if you have electronic devices that are damaged or that you are not using and you do not where to throw them away.

What does this mean for web designers? As I mentioned earlier, I say it means we should stop designing mobile websites. This sounds counter-intuitive but stay with me. The behavior of mobile browsing has changed drastically. Because people are accustomed to browsing on mobile devices, they opt to do so in favor of desktop or other “fixed” platforms. This means you can no longer assume that those browsing on a mobile device are in fact, mobile. It might just be more accessible to browse from your phone on the couch than going upstairs to your office. In the past, a designer could reason that if a user comes to the site on their phone, they must be in a rush; this is no longer the case. Context is no longer assessable.

Furthermore, there are so many different web-enabled devices that two categories (mobile and fixed) are too broad. Is a netbook mobile or fixed? What about your game console? It’s fixed, but very different from a desktop. How can you design a site for “mobile” when it’s questionable which devices fit in the category?

You can’t accommodate users who access a site from a spectrum of devices in endless contexts by simply thinking, “design for mobile.” It’s too narrow for the landscape this big. We need to think about universal websites.

Universal Web Design

The idea behind universal web design is simple. Design a site such that the most significant amount of people can access it and have a positive experience. This means the site should be easy to use regardless of device, technology, context, and situation. This idea is nothing new, in fact, it has existed for decades, and accessibility experts have been preaching it since day one. I don’t even feel the concept needs more explaining.

The solution is simple because universal web design isn’t a technique, it’s a mindset. It goes hand in hand with web standards, accessibility and great design. I realize to some extent I am arguing semantics. One could argue designing for mobile makes a site more universal (because you are designing for the lowest common denominator.) I argue how we describe our approach is invaluable. Saying “design for mobile” sends the wrong message, suggesting focus on traditional mobile devices (phones and tablets) when you should be considering all devices. The word “universal” is all-encompassing and thus more fitting.

At our web design agency, we’ve moved to responsive web design over mobile-specific websites. It’s a more universal approach to web design that accommodates a wider range of contexts and use cases while increasing maintainability.

In summary, don’t think mobile… think universal.