We’ll tell you what you really want: Mobile context, top tasks, and organization-centric thinking

There’s been a lot of talk lately about how we plan and deliver content for people using mobile devices: Do we make a mobile site? An app? Go responsive? Does our content get cut down? Rewritten? Reprioritized? Hidden?

This is great. Debate about how to deal with the sticky issues of our time is a wonderful thing.

What got me all bothered the past few days isn’t that there’s disagreement. It’s the sickening sense I get that much of this supposedly user-centered thinking is actually, deep down, way more focused on the organization than anyone cares to admit.

Contextual contention

Yesterday, after reading both Karen McGrane and Stephen Hay’s blistering new posts about the topic—and not long after getting caught up in a long exchange with Christiaan Lustig about his take—I saw Colleen Jones tweet something that finally stopped me in my tracks:

I disagree. I think context matters for everything.

There is, of course, a catch: We don’t know our users’ context.

We want to know it. We’d pay to know it. And yet, we never really know what a user wants—unless he tells us. And that’s why it might make perfect sense to build an app with just a few features, in the same way it might make sense to build a microsite for a specific event—because in these scenarios, our users are telling us that they want a specific subset of information. We’re not guessing.

Take, for example, the Patient app for Mayo Clinic that Colleen’s colleague wrote about last month. Designed for patients (of course), Patient offers information that’s incredibly useful while you’re at the clinic, like directing you step-by-step from one appointment to the next across a large medical campus. If I were about to receive inpatient care at Mayo, damn straight I would download that app before I went.

But what if it were the default experience for anyone visiting from a mobile device? Suddenly, those whose context doesn’t match the one Mayo designed its content around are utterly left out.

We’re solving the wrong problem

You often hear about cutting content to cut clutter. I support this—if you’re cutting the clutter from everywhere, not just a mobile experience. After all, clutter is crap: the sweater your aunt gave you three Christmases ago that’s so terrible you wouldn’t even wear it to an ugly sweater party, not the raincoat you only use six times a year. Because those six times, that raincoat might be the most important item in your closet.

When we try to solve mobile design problems by cutting useful content, we’re taking the easy way out—and we’re doing it at the expense of our users.

There’s a harder, but much better, way.

On Monday night, I spent three full hours in an Ikea outside of Philadelphia. The trip ate away most of my soul and basically all of my remaining youth, as these things are wont to do. But it gave me back something unexpected: A reminder about bringing order to small spaces.

Tucked into that never-ending “showroom” path that weaves from department to department, you’ll find a display of an entire apartment, expertly designed for a family of three, coming in at just over 500 square feet.

I don’t know whether any of us wants to live in a home made entirely of affordable Swedish mod merchandise. But this little display teaches a number of lessons we could all stand to learn as we’re designing for mobile: how to create visually distinct, yet compact, spaces for different purposes; how to tuck away items for later use without making them hard to reach; how to pack complex content into close quarters without a single item feeling crammed in or off-kilter.

Now whenever I read that we need to remove content in mobile, I think about that little apartment and how seamlessly it held three lives in place—without cutting out anything valuable.

Maybe the answer isn’t cutting. Maybe it’s learning better skills for designing and structuring complex information to be usable and enjoyable in small spaces.

Maybe we should be investing our time in getting better at flexible IA and navigation schema, not designing websites that eliminate the stovetop because the toilet and shower were more popular tasks.

(I mean, the average apartment user only cooks at home a few times a week. But she goes to the bathroom, like, every day, right? We cut the clutter so she could focus!)

But 80% of women aged 26 to 34 want long, romantic curls!

That’s great. But 100% of me thinks I look stupid with hot-roller head and just wants the damn asymmetrical bob I came in here for.

Trends and averages are extremely helpful for making decisions about prominence and priority. But as a user, I only have one “top task”: mine.

This doesn’t mean top task analysis can’t be a useful and wonderful thing. Knowing which content people want most can help you focus your efforts and make marked improvements to your site (and your bottom line). It’s called tackling the “fat head”—the opposite of the “long tail”—and it’s a way to get more bang for your site-update buck.

I take no issue with any of this. None of us has unlimited time and money to offer everything to everyone. The problem is when you begin using that research to build entire new sites that limit some users’ access to valuable content just because of the device they’re using. Because when you do, you’re thinking about your organization and its results: “We cut bounce rate by 40%!” What you’re inherently not thinking about is your user—not in the personal, empathetic way I think you ought.

User experience isn’t a statistic in your Omniture account. It’s a commitment to the very real humans on the other side of your site—humans who are trying to solve a problem or answer a question, and for whom averages and trends mean very little.

Telling them what they ought to want isn’t how you show you care, folks.

Banishing org-first thinking

We’ve been talking about user-centered this and that for years. Yet the more some organizations start dealing with content that’s flexible, that their users might encounter in multiple different contexts, the more uncomfortable they seem to get. The more they try to lock their content down and force people to experience it their way.

When your organization is truly customer focused, right down to its core, then the prospect of preparing your content to go wherever your users are stops seeming outlandish and starts seeming like the only sensible course of action.

Mobile is a tremendous shift, but it’s just the beginning. Devices are going to get wackier. Users’ expectations about shifting and saving and sharing content are going to get greater. As they do, this mindset—one where we, the benevolent organization, tells customers what they, the individual, should want—will get more and more frustrating for users, and damaging to businesses.

If it is truly “all about the users,” then let’s start acting like it.

6 thoughts on “We’ll tell you what you really want: Mobile context, top tasks, and organization-centric thinking

  1. Good stuff, Sara! Thanks a bunch!

    Allow me to quote Brad Frost, from his reply to Stephen Hay’s article: “I’d say a good rule of thumb is that you should serve the same content coupled with an optimized presentation…”.

    If that content is prepared “to go wherever your users are”, that should probably be the basis, indeed.

    Brad then adds that when “you have hard data and a really unique use case”, cutting content for mobile, tablet or desktop can be justified.

    That’s the point I tried to make, last week: Gerry McGovern’s top task analysis method gives just that hard data to base your decisions on.

    But, like we discussed on Twitter, I’m talking purely hypothetically, here — I have no best practices nor evidence, yet.

    This week’s articles by Stephen, Karen, and you are awfully inspiring, though. So, thanks! 🙂

  2. Sarah,

    the analogy of living space its various functions and ornaments contained is a good way to show that if anything, Mobile is just another variant of  dwelling, maybe a caravan or a backpack prepared for camping. You’d still take a portable stove, a matt to sleep on and all the other necessities for a trip. Whichever items you choose to leave at home are deemed unnecessary for your trip and may well be unnecessary in an apartment as well. We tend to fill a void, fill up an apartment, fill up a house with stuff – because we can and white walls and empty spaces are evil.

    Mobile is not that hard really, you serve it same content and integrate/optimise it with onboard functionality where appropriate and available, the experience is still best served by thoughtful design, IA and meaningful content strategy and of course user centric. I’d like to think of it as a long overdue opportunity for some drastic spring cleaning with the aid of a skip bin. The web has become unfocused, busy and a distracting platform not dissimilar to the Las Vegas neon, devoid of quality. 

    And as you say “context matters for everything” and “we don’t know our user’s context” – yet anyway, which allows me to still sleep at night. However the race is on to monetize the mobile user, for example with predictive patterns as in this study http://tiny.cc/y74ahw

    I have no doubt that the future will present the marketable individual with a set of contextual experiences that will be timely and local as well as predicting possible intent. Me personally, even once the neon grail has been cracked i’d like to be in a position to still own the rights to my own fickle context. 

    Until then, let’s not assume and get the broom out instead

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