Yesterday’s comic strip from xkcd makes fun of something that everyone with a smartphone or tablet has experienced: mobile websites that don’t work properly. You enter a site, get redirected, and suddenly you’re lost in cyberspace. I have a love/hate relationship with mobile websites for the most part, especially when they don’t have the functionality I need.
Let’s start off with a lesson in technology: how do websites know what browser you’re using? Well, there’s something called the user agent which is basically a text string that the browser sends along with page requests that tells it what browser and browser version you’re using, its capabilities etc. The website can then make some changes depending on what browser you’re using. On one of my old websites, I redirected anyone using Internet Explorer to a message stating their browser was retarded and needed to be thrown out after spending way too many hours trying to make it work properly on IE. Nowadays, user agents are normally used to send mobile devices to mobile versions of website.
As I see it, there are three main issues with mobile websites. The first is when you follow a link to a specific page or article and the website sends you to the mobile font page- not the article. If the search feature is bad on the site (or non-existent on the mobile version) you might be stuck and not find what you were after.
The second problem is when the site doesn’t have the feature you’re after, or mistakes your browser for being dumber than it is. Whenever I go to Gmail on my iPad it for some reason sends me to this tiny version of the login, probably designed for smartphones. It looks ridiculous on the iPad’s 10″ screen, and it also doesn’t have the features I need. To make things worse it tells you to go to a PC to sign up for an account. guess what, the sign up works just fine if you (ironically) Google for the direct link, it’s just that bloody mobile site that is retarded. In general these mobile versions might miss links, search features, navigational menus etc. Worst of all is if they’re missing a link to disable the mobile site. If you visit this site on an iPhone you’ll find a mobile version that is very limited compared to the full site, but it also has a giant button on the button to switch to the full version.
The third issue is what xkcd is making fun of; you click to turn off the mobile theme, browse a few pages, and then it’s back. This is often a problem when you’re trying to open those infamous links that gets redirected by turning off the mobile site and then trying to link again. Just reloading the page or hitting a new link might also reactivate the mobile version.
Mobile sites are often great, as long as they’re designed well and can be turned off (and stay off). In some cases they’re needed to circumvent flash video and other elements and instead use HTML5. However they should also be used with extreme caution- especially on larger devices such as the iPad and other 10″ tablets. Many third party browsers have user agent switching built in, meaning you can trick the website into believing you’re using any browser. This might require you to switch back and fourth a lot though if you run into sites that don’t work well with fake user agents.
Moral of the story: don’t annoy your visitors by trying to help them.