The Usability Blog
A Practical Guide to User Experience Insights

Jakob Nielsen, Responsive Web Design, and Compromise

Arguably nobody on the planet stirs up the design community better and more frequently than Jakob Nielsen.  His recent article, Mobile Site vs. Full Site, has already generated a lot of controversy. Designers and content strategist have leveled numerous criticisms (here and here for example) of Nielsen’s recommendation to provide separate mobile-optimized sites that cut features and cut content.

In Nielsen’s response to the criticism, via an interview with .net magazine, Nielsen defends his omission of Responsive Web Design (RWD) with a quote that probably caused many designers to slap their forehead in frustration.  Of the RWD charge, Nielsen says he omitted it as an option Because I was writing about user experience, not implementation.”

Designers and product manager are likely to howl about this attitude and his overall argument still does not hold up well to the tenets of RWD.  But I’ll let the RWD experts take care of that argument.  Brad Frost, for example, has already penned an excellent discussion on Content Parity  that effectively debunks a lot of Nielsen’s argument.

Implementation Is Everything

What is perplexing about Nielsen’s comment is that it is indicative of a common criticism of usability testing in general.  Nielsen wants to provide a usability recommendation without considering implementation.  Designers and product managers live and breathe in a world of compromises due to the fact that they have to actually implement features and content while balancing resources, deadlines, project goals, and more.

They can’t evaluate features and designs without evaluating implementation. Implementation is everything when producing applications and websites.

Usability Metrics Don’t Stop At The Display

When confronted with the question of one responsive URL or different URLs per device, Nielsen cops out again “As long as each user sees the appropriate design, the choice between these implementation options should be an engineering decision and not a usability decision.” (emphasis added)

This is a dangerously narrow definition of a usability decision.  The usability of the page is not the only usability metric of concern.  For example, sharing of pages and content on social networks is of paramount importance to most websites today.  The ability of a user to find, read, and share the content is clearly a usability test case (and a conversion metric) for a lot of websites.  Which means that the question “single URL or device dependent URL?” is a key usability factor that Nielsen ignores.  When faced with this question Nielsen punts it as “an engineering decision.”

RWD Implementation Challenges

The modern web is too complex to ignore implementation when reviewing design and usability.  This isn’t just a problem for Nielsen.  Teams that take up the responsive web design banner must face the realities of implementation as well.

For example, we recently had a discussion with a client that was undertaking the task of converting their relatively large ecommerce site to a Responsive Web Design.  The team was excited, management was on board, they had even recently been to our usability labs to test some of their work.  But the reality of converting the entire existing site to a responsive design was daunting and causing conflict.

The problem?  Stakeholders would not compromise on content for the new responsive site.  Everything that exists today on the desktop site needed to be in the new site but some things didn’t translate well.  A keen Mobile First  evangelist, the product manager knew that the real problem was that some of the existing content and features probably needed to be removed from BOTH the desktop and mobile views.  But down in the trenches of real live existing products, you don’t often get to start over and stakeholders don’t like to see their pet features cut in a new release.

From the stakeholders perspective, typically new releases are supposed to mean new features, not fewer features.  And that’s when compromises happen in real projects.

RWD and Mobile First are easy concepts to defend but they are a lot easier to implement when starting from scratch than when converting an existing site.  Often times, the right thing to do (such as cutting content on all views) is hard if not impossible to implement in real world projects due to outside constraints.

Compromised Project Goals

Compromise happens.  For example, take a look at the originally referenced .net magazine interview with Nielsen from the mobile link and the desktop link.  Notice what’s missing from the mobile link?

Jakob Nielsen's interview - desktop screenshot   Jakob Neilsen mobile article

Ads, menus, widgets, social links, comments, registration, and login are all missing in the mobile site.  I’m guessing .net magazine relies a lot on advertisements and paid subscriptions for most or all of its revenue and it relies on social sharing to bring in more readers (I found the article via Twitter for example).  And yet all of these features are missing from the mobile URL.

It is easier to read the mobile version on my desktop, but as a revenue driving product the mobile site fails to meet (assumed) key requirements of the site.  Compromise happens on every side of the argument.

Usability and Implementation

Nielsen wants to provide usability advice that is implementation agnostic.  Designers and content managers want implementations that are device agnostic.  In the real world of launching and maintaining business websites the truth is usually somewhere in the middle.  Compromise happens so that something gets published, because shipping is a feature too.

Your usability approach must be flexible and ingrained in the project goals to achieve this.  You need to consider not just the usability of the rendered page, but the usability of the rendered link, the availability of key product features (if it is not available the feature is not usable), and the ability of the team to implement the design within project constraints.  Usability decisions are engineering decisions and engineering decisions are usability decisions.

Brad Cranford, Director of Technology, Usability Sciences

twitter: @aggiebradley |  personal blog


Sign up to become a Paid Test Participant.

Sign UP Now


“From beginning to end, everyone I interacted with from Usability Sciences was professional and thorough. I was impressed with the testing technology, the methodology and especially the team that led the project. This is one of the most impactful pieces of research I have ever delivered to my team. Thank you!”

Senior Director
Digital Media Television Networks

“USC managed tight timelines and a client team that was tough to wrangle, But more importantly, the quality of the work was exemplary. It's work I would hold up as "the way we should do things" and share as a case study across the organization.”

Group Product Director
Digital Marketing, Pharmaceutical Company