The Rise of the Mobile-Only User
"They can just use their desktop computer to do that."
One of the most persistent misconceptions about mobile devices is that it's okay if they offer only a paltry subset of the content available on the desktop. Decision-makers argue that users only need quick, task-focused tools on their mobile devices, because the desktop will always be the preferred choice for more in-depth, information-seeking research.
But what about people who don't have a desktop computer? What about people who have access to a PC, but prefer using their mobile device? Those users want and need access to the same information, just presented in a different form factor. The mobile-only user is your customer too.
Reaching the mobile-only user
The rise of smartphones means that more and more people are going online from a mobile device. According to Pew Internet, 55 percent of Americans said they'd used a mobile device to access the internet in 2012. A surprisingly large number — 31 percent — of these mobile internet users say that's the primary way they access the web. This is a large and growing audience whose needs aren't being met by traditional desktop experiences.
Some of these users may have access to a traditional PC and a broadband connection at home, work, or school, but these may be shared devices or simply not private. For their personal, always-on connected device, these people choose to rely on their mobile.
If you're trying to reach specific audiences, you can't afford to ignore mobile-only users. As Pew Internet reports:
- Young adults: 50 percent of teen smartphone owners, aged 12-17, say they use the internet mostly on their cell phone, according to a 2013 Pew Internet report on Teens and Technology. Similarly, 45 percent of young adults aged 18-29 reported in 2012 that they mostly go online with a mobile device.
- Black and Hispanic adults: 51 percent of black Americans and 42 percent of Hispanic Americans who use a mobile device to access the internet say that's the primary way they go online — about double the 24 percent of white Americans who say they rely on their mobile devices for access.
- Low-income adults: People whose household income is less than $30,000 per year and people with less than a college education are also more likely to rely on their mobile devices for access — about 40 percent of people in these groups say they primarily use their cell phone to go online. Healthcare, non-profit, and government institutions which need to reach these populations should be aware that their audience is mobile-only.
These numbers are already large enough to require attention — and they're not going down. With sales of PCs at an all-time low, more and more people will rely on their smartphones and tablets to go online. For this growing population, if your content doesn't exist on the mobile screen, it doesn't exist at all. Now's the time to figure out how to meet their needs.
Same experience, different device
Mobile-only users aren't some strange new breed of customer, signaling their desire for different messages, content, and services through their choice of screen size and form factor. They're just your customer. You can and should speak to them in the same way you address all your other customers. They just want to engage with you on the device that's most useful and convenient for them.
Meeting the needs of the mobile-only user doesn't mean agonizing about "the mobile use case," trying to determine which subset of content would be most useful to users "on-the-go." Google reports that 77 percent of searches from mobile devices take place at home or work, only 17 percent on the move. Mobile users should get the same content. It's frustrating and confusing for them if you only give them a little bit of what you offer on your "real" website. If you try to guess which subset of your content the mobile user needs, you're going to guess wrong. Deliver the same content as your desktop user sees. (If you think some of your content doesn't deserve to be on mobile, guess what — it doesn't deserve to be on the desktop either. Get rid of it.)
Meeting the needs of the mobile-only user also doesn't mean sending them to the desktop website on their smartphone. Asking mobile-only users to pinch and zoom their way through a website designed for a monitor five times larger is an ergonomic nightmare — and a cop-out. We can do better for these users than tiny fonts, untappable links, and broken hover states.
You don't get to decide which device your customer uses to access the internet. They get to choose. It's your responsibility to deliver essentially the same experience to them — deliver a good experience to them — whatever device they choose to use.
This article is reprinted with permission of the Harvard Business Review. Karen McGrane is the author of Content Strategy for Mobile and Managing Partner at Bond Art + Science, a user experience consultancy she founded in 2006. She consults with organizations on how to get their content ready for mobile. She also teaches Design Management in the Interaction Design MFA program at the School of Visual Arts.