Mobile users, tablet usability and form usability

What is a mobile web user anyway? Top 5 assumptions to avoid

We know mobile traffic is increasing, but it is important to understand what that really means and what we should do about it.

Many mobile websites make the classic mistake of assuming their users must be out and about. This is not true – huge amounts of mobile use is in the home. Other mobile websites have reduced content and functionality compared to the desktop experience, but this only serves to frustrate users.

I enjoyed this article by James Coltham, which highlights five key assumptions that we should avoid when thinking about mobile.

The key message is that although we know that different devices have different capabilities, we cannot automatically assume that this will affect what the user wants from the website.

Tablet usability

In a similar vein, Jakob Nielsen has been looking at usability on tablets, and has concluded that most websites do not need special designs for tablets.

We found that most websites are fairly usable on tablets and need only limited adjustments to suit this environment. (In contrast, using websites on mobile phones requires many more design changes to accommodate the smaller screens.)

Not surprisingly, when we asked people how they use their tablets, web browsing was universally mentioned as a top activity.

Although tablet-specific applications have plenty of usability flaws, the problems are mainly the same as those that plague traditional application design: difficult features, a mismatch with user workflow, and poor instructions that people don’t read.

How to improve the usability (and conversion rate) of your forms

I recently came across this interesting article about how to make forms more usable. Forms are often tricky to get right. This article looks like a very useful overview of tips.

User stories, the impact of search engine optimisation, and vestibular disorders

There is no overarching theme to this week’s articles. Just three articles I think are worth sharing.

Encouraging content collaboration through user stories

Here is another usability approach similar to personas, called user stories. Paul Boag suggests using this as a way to overcome the political turf wars that can dog web designs in large organisations.

A user story is a basic way of describing a task that a user wants to complete on the website. It can have a format like this:

  • As a [user type]…
  • …I want to [task]…
  • …so that [goal].

Not only do user story cards focus stakeholders on the user, they also act as a filter for irrelevant content and functionality. If the stakeholder is unable to write a user story for the content or functionality they require, then it probably should not exist online.

Furthermore, this approach leaves it to the expert (the web professional) to work out the best way of meeting the user’s needs. In many cases they will come up with a more elegant solution for helping the user than the stakeholder will have thought of.

Get to the top of Google!

A really interesting article about the past, present and future of search engine optimisation.

…it forces you to create a better website! Good SEO optimisation should be baked into your information architecture. It will force you to think about common content themes. It requires you to consider how all digital assets (such as videos and user-generated content) will be integrated into the overall user experience. It helps eliminate user experience dead ends such as gratuitious Flash interfaces and, my personal pet peeve, content locked in PDFs. It extends your perception of your online footprint beyond the bounds of your website, including things like social media. It will also instil a healthy rigour when it comes to thinking about how your site links together. Good SEO practices means a better user experience.

A primer to vestibular disorders

Have you thought about how webpages might affect people with vestibular disorders? Animations and movements on a webpage can be problematic for some people.

It is often easy to forget about some of the accessibility requirements that some people might have. This is a reminder that often the simpler design solution is the better one.

Don’t make animations, sliders, rapid movement start automatically. Give an indicator of what movement will happen on the site when a user takes action. Allow the user the option to turn off any animation and movement.

Taking inspiration from

I know there are more websites out there than, but I somehow feel the need to keep returning to it. It makes the news quite often for positive reasons, which is incredible for a government digital project.

Fail fast, move on – making government digital

Here, the BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones profiles the Government Digital Service:

The boss of the Government Digital Service was previously the digital director at the Guardian and has had a long career in the technology sector. He contrasts the approach his team is taking with the standard government IT procurement process, where a massive contract is handed to an outside supplier, inevitably a huge company.

“You then end up three years later with something that might be fit for what you were doing five years ago.” Compare this with the GDS approach: “Do it quick, fail fast, learn your lessons and continue to change – that’s why you need the skills inside the organisation.” And with a philosophy of open standards, there is much more flexibility to work with other, smaller suppliers as the project moves on.

FAQs: why we don’t have them

Although FAQs sometimes have their place, I often advise against them because they are usually not user-centred in design. The GDS agrees:

FAQs are convenient for writers – they put everything in a long list; it’s all neatly organised and the ‘Q’ does a lot of work for you. But they’re more work for readers – questions take longer to scan and understand than simple headings and you can’t take any meaning from them in a quick glance.

Also see the comments for an interesting discussion on FAQs.

A Gov supreme

Jeremy Keith uses as an example of a well-implemented responsive design, which adapts according to the device. This article also talks about how the advent of responsive design necessitates improvements in the way we work.

I’ve been doing some workshopping and consultancy at a few different companies recently, mostly about responsive design. I can’t help but feel a little bad about it because, while I think they’re expecting to get a day of CSS, HTML, and JavaScript, what they actually get is the uncomfortable truth that responsive design changes everything …changes that start long before the front-end development phase.

How students use smartphones, and when an app is (not) appropriate

This is how students actually use smartphones

Gareth sent me this interesting infographic about how students use phones. A few interesting stats stood out for me:

  • 29% of students say they use their phone for learning.
  • 88% say they use it for surfing the web.
  • 78% say they access an academic service using their phone.

Mobile app vs mobile website design: your four options

Once you decide you want to reach users of mobile devices, the temptation may be to create a smartphone app. But often that is the wrong approach.

Here, Paul Boag outlines the four options you may take to reach mobile users. He concludes that when users are trying to access information, a responsive web design – rather than an app – is the way to go.

We’re not ’appy. Not ’appy at all.

The Government Digital Service explains why they are focusing on the mobile web, not native mobile apps, to deliver digital services. The comments section also contains an interesting discussion:

Interesting that you don’t mention what seems to me the most obvious reason not to have apps – I don’t spend most of my time interacting with the government. I’m not going to install your app and have it clutter up my phone, demand updates, etc, just to book my driving test (once or twice in a lifetime) or pay my VAT (once a year). This is exactly the kind of occasional use the Web is good for.

Readability on the web

How users read have published their Service Design Manual, an amazingly comprehensive resource about digital service delivery. This particular section outlines the background to the Government Digital Service’s thinking when it comes to writing content.

Users only really read 20-28% of a web page. With services, where users just want to complete the task as quickly as possible, you have added user impatience so you may find users skim words even more.

Website reading: It (sometimes) does happen

We know that on average users only read around a quarter of the text on a webpage. But we also know that sometimes users do read more. Jakob Nielsen assessed what makes a user start reading word for word. He highlights good information architecture and good page layout with well-written subheadings as being essential.

…helpful IA and effective page layout are key to getting users to read your copy. However, our eyetracking data also detected a third ingredient for converting users from scanners to readers: high-quality writing.

Sorry, no real surprise — although we’ve identified 83 detailed guidelines for web content, they really boil down to that. Having guided people to your content, it must be good.

The Readability Test Tool

When writing for the web, it is important to write clearly and avoid jargon. You can check text against a variety of readability tests using this tool.

Opinions vary on which tests are the most accurate or valid. But it can still be useful to check text to ensure that it can be easily understood by as many people as possible.

Microcopy and calls to action

There is a theme to this week’s selection – microcopy. Microcopy is the really short items of content – navigation labels, the wording of submit buttons, and so on. This can have a big effect on the success of a website. We know it is difficult to get right. But it is important to get it right.

Five ways to prevent bad microcopy

Microcopy is often treated as an afterthought, but it is becoming increasingly clear that good microcopy is essential from a usability standpoint, and is worth spending some time on. This article contains some great tips on how we might solve this tricky problem.

Microcopy often falls victim to personal bias, internal terminology, poor branding, broken contextual flows, time crunches and other factors. Any of these can undermine even the most well-designed UX and the copy within.

Whoopsy daisy log-ins: a further look at good and bad micro-copywriting

This article highlights some examples of microcopy from four of the biggest tech companies in the world: Microsoft, Twitter, Facebook and Google. Some are more successful than others.

20 dos and don’ts for clickable calls to action

We normally want users to ultimately complete some sort of goal. We use calls to action to help users along. This is a selection of useful suggestions on how to optimise calls to action.

Carousels: advantages and disadvantages

This week, a series of articles about the advantages and disadvantages of carousels. We begin with a couple of articles from usability expert Jakob Nielsen.

Auto-forwarding carousels and accordions annoy users and reduce visibility

Carousels are often useful for organisations like Universities to use for political reasons – to get more information on prominent pages. But often this is at the expense of the usability of the page.

This study analyses how easy users find carousels, and the results are very poor. One major reason for this is banner blindness, the phenomenon whereby users avoid looking at anything that looks like it might be an advert. It includes the following remarkable finding about some core information that a user was looking for, that appeared to be in a prominent position:

The user’s target was at the top of the page in 98-point font. But she failed to find it because the panel auto-rotated instead of staying still.

When the UI is too fast

Jakob Nielsen has a cautionary tale on user interfaces that move too quickly, ultimately confusing and frustrating users.

This often happens in carousel, rotators, and other auto-forwarding design elements. Once you decide that something might be of interest, it’s yanked off the screen — replaced by something you don’t want.

This is particularly problematic for slower users, such as international customers who don’t read your language well or old or disabled users who might need extra time dealing with the user interface and are thus disproportionally harmed by rapidly changing screens.

Let’s establish a simple usability principle: avoid taunting the customers.


Another look at the pros and cons of using carousels, and how best to implement them.

From universities to giant retailers, large organizations endure their fair share of politics. And boy does that homepage look like a juicy piece of prime real estate to a roomful of stakeholders. It’s hard to navigate these mini turf wars, so tools like carousels are used as appeasers…

And finally…

Should I use a carousel?

This webpage demonstrates the point about carousels nicely.

All this is not to say that we should necessarily ban carousels completely. But we should think carefully about what the carousel would be for, and bear in mind the usability problems they may introduce.

Smartphone search results; search usability; future-friendly content

Changes in rankings of smartphone search results

Building mobile-optimised websites

Google have announced changes they have made to the way they rank search results for users of smartphones. Google will penalise websites that do not meet their recommendations for building mobile-optimised websites.

Among the most notable points from these:

  • Google recommends using a responsive web design, rather than building a separate mobile website.
  • Google will penalise websites that use Adobe Flash to deliver content. This includes videos.

Converting search into navigation

A recent usability report from Jakob Nielsen. Search engine results often fail to give the users what they were looking for, even though users often turn to search first. Here, Jakob Nielsen looks at some of the problems with search, and some potential solutions.

In study after study, we see the same thing: most users reach for search, but they don’t know how to use it.

Thriving in a world of change: Future-friendly content with Drupal

This is a lengthy but valuable presentation about the challenges faced in content management. The whole thing is lengthy, but I would at least recommend reading the first section of this article.

The big lesson from this is that the print mindset is unsuitable enough for today’s world, and it will be extremely unsuitable for tomorrow’s world. Today’s interfaces are different to print, but ideas carried over from print have up until now worked enough for the techniques to stick. But tomorrow’s interfaces will bear no resemblance to print whatsoever. We need to radically rethink the way we create and publish content. We need to prepare for it now.

All of our assumptions that print techniques can work on the web, even the ‘page’ metaphor, are going to face big challenges very soon. There is going to be a massive diversification in the range of different interfaces that people might use. Today we have mobile and touch screen. Not too far away are speech-based interfaces, Google Glass, smart watches, smart TVs, digital signage, in-car interfaces (in our driverless cars), fridges and who knows what else… Some of these may seem like science fiction pipe dreams that don’t yet work in the real world. But Karen McGrane makes a great point: remember how much of a bad joke touch screens and tablets were just a few years ago.

…[The web was] created for the explicit purpose of allowing anyone, anywhere, to publish documents that can be instantly updated and accessible globally. And when you take a step back from the work we do everyday to appreciate  how transformational that is in the history of communication, 20 years just isn’t even close to enough time to adapt to that monumental change. We opened Pandora’s box.

The desktop web was just the start. For the last 20 years we’ve been able to imagine that a web page is just a glorified print document.

But now the explosion of people accessing the web through mobile devices has forced us to come to terms with the ways that the web is different. Our shared hallucination that we have control over layout and presentation, that most users on the desktop had essentially the same screen size, the same input devices—that’s gone.

…And it’s not going to stop! I’m not a futurist, I’m not here to predict what will capture the public’s imagination next. But I do know, whatever platform comes next, we’re going to have to get our content onto it.

Keeping a lid on ever-growing web content

Anyone can add. It takes a professional to take away

It is tempting to think that adding content to a website is harmless. After all, the marginal cost of adding another webpage is almost zero. Except that the more content the website contains, the more difficult it becomes for the user to find what they are actually looking for. If the user is looking for a needle, we are adding hay to the haystack.

Every piece of content you add makes it that bit harder to navigate your website. It makes your website harder to search. There are more pages to review. Every sentence you add can take away from the ability to focus on a much more important sentence. These are just some of the hidden costs of addition.

Controlling the website animal

Paul Boag takes another look at the problem of uncontrollably-growing websites, and interesting tips on how to prevent this. It’s time to seriously consider cutting down on the amount of content to make things easier for the user.

This article suggests three policies you might consider to make sure that the website ruthlessly meets the user’s needs:

  1. The least-clicked link on the homepage will be replaced.
  2. Pages that do not have a certain number of page views and dwell time will be unpublished until rewritten.
  3. Any webpage that has not been updated in the last six months will be unpublished until the content is reviewed.

These rules might be too draconian, but it is interesting to think about these while looking at content strategy. And it will be useful to think about these rules whenever we think about our content on the web.

Jargon still a plague on devolved council websites

Another reminder of the dangers of using jargon on websites. Using terminology that is familiar to us is such an easy trap to fall into, but we must always strive to put ourselves in the user’s shoes.

UK local authority websites are plagued by jargon and poorly written content, preview findings from this year’s annual UK website survey by the Society of IT Management (Socitm) have shown. This makes them hard to use; loses councils money; and calls into question the common practice of devolving the writing of web content down into service departments, according to the survey’s director.

Learning lessons from public bodies’ websites

There is a bit of a theme to this week’s articles – how public bodies’ websites are performing. Here we see one organisation doing a fantastic job, and one organisation doing a terrible job. Then there is a report on Unistats, which is more directly relevant to us. how geeks opened up government – video

I have waxed poetic about before, and it continues to grow in influence and credibility. Last week the Guardian went behind the scenes to find out how the Government Digital Service works, and the thinking behind This is highly recommended viewing.

I was interested to see the evolution of the homepage (3.43 to 3.50), which suggests that they attempted several different graphics-heavy designs before settling on the stripped-back, minimalist, information-focused website we see today.

Francis Maude:

It’s designed around the user, not around the needs or the desires of the government – and that’s tended to be the case in the past… Prettifying is not what it’s about. I’m thrilled that won this incredibly prestigious design award [the Design of the Year Award], but that wasn’t about what it looks like.

Alex Torrance:

It’s about making sure that people will be using this, and they will need to get something done, or learn something. Rather than trying to make stuff look pretty for the sake of it, trying to make things easy to use.

More or Less – Hunting for official statistics

The Office for National Statistics website is so notoriously bad that it has been featured on Radio 4’s More or Less. The ONS deputy director responsible for digital publishing, Laura Dewis, was subjected to a grilling from Tim Harford.

According to Laura Dewis, the reason the ONS website’s search function is so bad is because they listened to user feedback, which suggested that users always wanted the most recent information. What the ONS website designers failed to realise was that what users actually want is the most recent relevant information.

This is a cautionary tale. What users say they want is not always what they actually want. User feedback is only part of the mix. We should also use analytics data, which provide hard facts about what users are actually doing. Designers should also use their judgement to work out what would be the best solution, rather than slavishly following user feedback in this manner without applying any critical thinking.

Laura Dewis also revealed that the ONS focused on making their website easy for ONS staff members to update, at the expense of the user experience for the end users of the website. We should always remember that the website is for the user, not for us.

Early evaluation of the Unistats website

A report from HEFCE evaluating the usage of the Unistats website so far. There are a few interesting stats:

Between its September 2012 launch and (the start of?) May 2013, the Unistats website received 3.8 million pageviews from 175,000 unique visitors. In that period, Unistats had 22 pageviews per unique visitor. This suggests to me that Unistats has comparatively few users, but those users are very heavy users.

73% of visitors to the Unistats website are direct – i.e. they are typing the URL into the address bar, or using a bookmark, rather than coming from other websites or a search engine. This figure seems very high. For most websites, the majority of traffic comes from search engines.

A section about the performance of the widgets is on page 10 (page 25 of the PDF). There, concerns are raised about the visibility and usability of the widgets. It appears as though users are mistaking the widgets for adverts.

(Studies show that many users ignore anything that looks like an advert, even if it is not actually an advert. This phenomenon is known as banner blindness.)