Redirects on and to mobile sites (are evil)

Developer

By Posted On: Oct 4, 2013

Over the next year our group plans to rebuild both the university main web site and the mobile web site. One of the discussions that came up was whether to detect the user’s device on both sites and route mobile devices hitting www.tamu.edu to the mobile site and desktop users hitting m.tamu.edu to the full site. Based on the behavior that I have seen on many university sites this is a discussion that takes place throughout higher ed. Many get it wrong. The answer, of course, is an emphatic NO!

For the philosophic reasoning, let me first go back to what I consider the central truism of our job. Visitors come to our sites for a reason, which is to find a particular bit of information. People no longer “browse” sites, following links from one to another to see what is there, like we did back in the early days of the internet. They want to find out something, and it is our job to help them find it quickly and easily. Any interruption or delay in this process represents a bad user experience, and we know from dozens of studies that dissatisfied users will leave and not come back.

Redirects are a perfect example of such an interruption. We as developers have been trapped by the proverbial box. We see that users come to the site from a particular device so we cleverly think that we should “make it easier for them” by redirecting them to where they “really” wanted to go. But is our assumption of where they want to go valid? Probably not. Most university mobile sites are not simply the mobile version of the full site. They are instead designed to feature content that is useful mainly to people on campus who are themselves on-the-go. Two years ago that would have described what most people with a mobile device would be looking for. Today, though, the majority are causal users who expect to be able to see all of the content of the sites they are visiting…which is to say the responsive view of the full site. Redirecting mobile devices from the full site to the mobile site, then, is today more likely to give them the wrong information than helping them find what they were looking for.

Our team discussion went further than this, with one side advocating redirecting devices to the mobile site even if the full site is responsive. The problem with this method is that it fails to see the paradigm shift that has taken place in the last couple of years. It argues that if you use a mobile device you should get the mobile site (i.e. the site designed for on-the-go users) and that if you really wanted the full site you can link back to it. That is a dangerous assumption because it not only fails to take into account the intent of the user but actually mis-identifies their intent and points them to the wrong location.

From a pragmatic standpoint we should avoid redirects because their time is simply over. Responsive design has answered the question of how content should best be served to a mobile device. Two or three years ago it might have been understandable to redirect a mobile device to a mobile site since the full site probably was not mobile friendly. Today there is no excuse for the full version not to be responsive. That, then, should be what people on mobile devices are allowed to see.

What about the case of redirecting desktop users? When many mobile sites today detect a desktop user they redirect them to a special landing page telling about how the site was built, what features are included, and (maybe) a link to actually view the site content. Why? When we visit a site we want to read its contents, not learn about the framework that created it. We don’t build special pages on our full sites telling how we built it, and mobile sites shouldn’t be any different. If somebody visits a mobile website from a desktop browser, send them straight to the site content.

A quick glance at our mobile site’s analytics shows that many on-campus staff regularly use the mobile site in their day-to-day jobs from their office desktops. They have very similar needs to on-the-go users and prefer going to the mobile web site to get all of that information in one place rather than going to a dozen different full sites to get it all. In this way we get them the information they were looking for quickly and easily. If we had instigated a redirect on the site they probably would have turned away on their first visit, never came back, and therefore never gained the benefit of using the mobile site.

In summation… leave the user’s choice of where they are going up to them. When we as developers start assuming that we know better than the user what they themselves are looking for we are generally going to be wrong, and in turn create a bad user experience and a frustrated user.

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