“Mobile” Is Meaningless

I’m finding the use of the word “mobile” less and less helpful within web circles.

The word “mobile” is an adjective. But it’s increasingly being used as a noun. Every day I hear phrases like, “Tables suck on mobile,” or “When dealing with mobile, you should…”.

On mobile what? When dealing with mobile what?

Mobile phones? Mobile connections? Mobile users?

Really when people use the word “mobile” unqualified in a web context, they usually mean, simultaneously:

  • A portable device
  • A user on-the-move
  • A small screen
  • A touchscreen
  • Limited system CPU and memory resources
  • A poor network connection

When smartphones first took hold, this made total sense: users were typically either on a smartphone – and experienced all of these conditions – or on a laptop/desktop, in one location, staring at a large screen, using a keyboard & mouse and powerful system resources.

But nowadays, the device landscape – and user landscape – has broadened so much that this polarity no longer exists.

For instance, most people also include tablets under the “mobile” label, although tablet screens can be bigger even than desktop screens.

In fact, if you treat each of the properties above as Boolean (either true or false), there are 64 permutations (that’s 26, maths geeks). It’s easy to find users experiencing just about any of those:

  • Portable device + not on the move + large touchscreen + high system resources + poor connection

    = a tablet user sitting at their desk, maybe in an emerging market

  • Portable device + on the move + large non-touchscreen + low system resources + good connection

    = a netbook user on a train with Wi-Fi

  • Non-portable device + large touchscreen + high system resources + good connection

    = a touchscreen desktop user on broadband

and so on.

But of course most of these aren’t Boolean… they’re sliding scales: from 3” phone screens up to 50” cinema screens; from patchy GPRS up to fibre broadband. The total number of possible scenarios is basically limitless.

So the problem with talking about “on mobile” as if it’s only one condition, is all the other users who don’t fit your simple model of a “mobile user” get forgotten.

It also leads people to infer false information from your statements.

“Sales are down on mobile” could mean that fewer people are buying on-the-move, or that fewer people are experiencing your purchasing flow on a small screen, or that fewer people are bothering to contend with your non-touch-optimised site.

Any one of these being true does not mean the others are, and inferring the wrong meaning could lead to taking the wrong action to address the problem.

Saying “Drop-down menus don’t work on mobile” has in the past encouraged designers to avoid hover states in their narrow site layouts, but still rely on them on wide layouts – isolating tablet and touchscreen desktop users.

So please say what you mean.

If you’re talking about users on-the-go, say so. If you’re talking about poor cellular connections, say so. If you’re talking about “mobile devices”, make it clear which feature of these is relevant: portability, small screen, touchscreen, system resources, …?

Oh, and using the word “social” without qualification is similarly annoying and meaningless, so please try to avoid that too.

Thanks.