Windows on the Web

You have five minutes while waiting for a friend to meet you for lunch, so you find yourself shopping for a new pair of shoes. When your friend arrives, you put the phone away, but leave the web page open to help you remember what you found when you get home.

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While you’re at work, you read a restaurant review for a new place you think sounds tasty. Come dinnertime, you grab your phone to pull up the address and location.

One night on your tablet, you’re browsing articles for a report you’re writing at work. Back at your desk the next day, you struggle in vain to remember what you searched for to find those articles. Why can’t you find them again?

Sound familiar? If you’re like most people, it probably does. Research from Google (PDF) shows that 90 percent of people start a task using one device, then pick it up later on another device—most commonly, people start a task on smartphone, and then complete it on the desktop. As you might expect, people regularly do this kind of device switching for the most common activities, like browsing the internet (81 percent) or social networking (72 percent). Certain categories like retail (67 percent), financial services (46 percent), and travel (43 percent) also seem to support this kind of sequential use of different devices.

Dual-screen or multi-screen use of devices gets a lot of attention, but we tend to focus on simultaneous usage—say, using tablets or smartphones while watching TV. Publishers, advertisers, and social networks are all actively trying to figure out how to deliver a good experience to users as they shift their attention between two screens at the same time. Sequential usage is every bit as common, but we rarely acknowledge this behavior or try to optimize for this experience.

When people start a task on one device and then complete it on another, they don’t want different content or less content, tailored for the device. They want the same content, presented so they can find it, navigate it, and read it. They imagine that their devices are different-sized windows on the same content, not entirely different containers.

What should we do to provide a good experience for users who want to complete the same task across more than one device?

Content parity#section2

Let’s make device-switching the final nail in the coffin for the argument that mobile websites should offer a subset of the content on the “real” website. Everyone’s had the frustrating experience of trying to find content they’ve seen on the desktop that isn’t accessible from a phone. But the reverse is also a problem: users who start a task from a smartphone during a bit of free time shouldn’t be cut off from options they’d find back at their desktop.

Consistent navigation labels#section3

When picking up a task on a second device, about half of users say they navigate directly to the website to find the desired information again. Users who are trying to locate the same information across a mobile site (or app) and a desktop site can’t rely on the same visual and spatial cues to help them find what they’re looking for. As much as possible, make it easy for them by keeping navigation categories and hierarchy exactly the same. There aren’t that many cases where we truly need to provide different navigation options on mobile. Most desktop navigation systems have been extensively tested—we know those categories and labels work, so keep them consistent.

Consistent search#section4

About 60 percent of users say they’d use search to continue a task on another device. Businesses wondering whether “mobile SEO” is necessary should keep in mind that user tasks and goals don’t necessarily change based on the device—in fact, it’s often the identical user searching for the exact information that very same day. It’s frustrating to get totally different results from different devices when you know what you’re looking for.

Handy tools#section5

Users have taught themselves tricks to make their transition between devices go more smoothly—about half of users report that they send themselves a link. Sites that don’t offer consistent URLs are guaranteed to frustrate users, sending them off on a quest to figure out where that link lives. Responsive design would solve this problem, but so would tools that explicitly allow users to save their progress when logged in, or email a link to the desktop or mobile version of a page.

Improved analytics#section6

Mobile analytics is still in the dark ages. Tracking users between devices is challenging—or impossible—which means businesses don’t have a clear picture of how this kind of multi-device usage is affecting their sales. While true multi-channel analytics may be a ways off, organizations can’t afford to ignore this behavior. Don’t wait for more data to “prove” that customers are moving between devices to complete a task. Customers are already doing it.

It’s time to stop imagining that smartphones, tablets, and desktops are containers that each hold their own content, optimized for a particular browsing or reading experience. Users don’t think of it that way. Instead, users imagine that each device is its own window onto the web.

11 Reader Comments

  1. This is one area that I feel the Google Chrome team has done a great job. I’m able to view the tabs that I’ve left open on my iPhone on both my tablet and laptop via Chrome. Now it’s just up to content creators (and curators) to keep things consistent.

    I could see myself in the (hopefully not so distant) future, beginning to read an article on my desktop at work, continue reading on my phone on the way down the elevator, and have my car pick up where I left off and finish reading the article to me as I commute back home.

  2. You make some great points here. I was thinking about this user behavior recently and wondered if the link for analytics is going to come through cookie transfer between logged-in browsers. Chrome has been letting users login for tab syncing for a while, and now iCloud does the same for Safari. So if you want to finish a purchase, more than just the URL needs to get passed over.

    I called it “intermodal UX” when I mused about it earlier. You start a journey in one device, and finish it with another:

  3. Excellent piece! It’s important to remember that the problem you’re talking about isn’t solved by any particular piece of technology. Cleanly presenting consistent content across multiple devices and experiences is a goal that must be planned and designed for.

    Even the much-lauded NPR COPE approach doesn’t guarantee it — some of their tablet apps, for example, only show a subset of the news that’s on the full web site. The underlying capability is there thanks to their infrastructure, but the process of news discovery and sharing is made a bit more frustrating before of the decisions made on top of that infrastructure.

  4. One of the main reasons I move from my phone or tablet to another device (usually my computer) is to gain access to features that have been disabled or don’t work properly on mobile.

    I like features that sync my devices through the cloud to help smooth this process, since undoubtedly many sites (and apps) will continue to work differently on different devices.

  5. Great points. Similarly, e-mail marketing especially needs to realize this crossing device usage pattern. My addition would be that too many times I’m sent an e-mail newsletter that I read on my phone then sent to a website that I can’t navigate using that same mobile device. These cross interface/app/website hand offs will be critical to effective UX design and content strategy and delivery in the next generation of online development and a unified content strategy / web development.

  6. Fantastic writing about responsive web design. Now, it will be easy for me to convince my clients to go for responsive design (I will pass this article to them). Very good article and written in a funny way but most describing manner. Thanks you.

  7. Great post, Karen! The simple truth is that our communications are using multiple devices (in the case of iProducts, we do play with iMessage on three devices), we pick up conversations that ended on Twitter and move them to Facebook or email, or even LinkedIn. Content consumption device shall be pleasing the user requirements, not the publishers’. The latter should just make it available across the board.

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