The Mobile-Hostile Web

April 18th, 2010

We have often looked at sites that are usable on, if not designed for, mobile use as “mobile-friendly.” It’s time we started looking at sites poorly suited to mobile use as mobile-hostile. Customers will soon start viewing the companies that field them as mobile-hostile as well — which is to say, willfully out of touch with their needs, and pretty much asking smarter competitors to lure them away. Below, a rant about the subject, the beginning of a thrilling two-part series.

Part One: The Comcast Ordeal
The target of my displeasure today is Comcast. Look around the Web, and you’ll find no shortage of reasons people complain about Comcast, but they’re my best option for Internet access. Like many service providers, Comcast is in the difficult position of being noticed only when they do something wrong; however, that simply means they have to try even harder to address customers’ needs when things do go wrong.

My Internet access was down this morning, and after trying every usual trick on my end, my next step was to contact Comcast and see if anything was amiss on their end. First, however, I figured I should check to make sure I hadn’t simply forgotten to pay my bill (I’m human, it happens). I logged onto on my Palm Pre, and was immediately greeted with a clunky, cluttered screen that loaded like the bits were being flown in via carrier pigeon. Zooming in past the “You need Flash to view this” placeholder taking up half the screen and the 15 assorted offers gracing the home page, I found “Pay Your Bill Online,” and after three more screens and another couple of minutes of typing and loading, I was on my account page. I tapped the button to pay my bill, and that’s when the real fun began.

The Real Fun Begins
To start with, Comcast has implemented a somewhat “smarter” system than they used to have, which uses AJAX to take you through the bill-paying process. On a desktop browser, it works, for the most part — a sub-window appears over the account window, dimming the background, and the interface can respond to user input quickly without reloading the page. They’re following recent thinking in user interface design, and that’s great. Until you try to use it on a smartphone.

The interface sort of works, but it doesn’t play well with the Webkit browser, or a small screen. If you are zoomed in far enough to see the Make a Payment button, the window that continues the process appears almost off the screen, and you could conceivably miss the window entirely. Zooming back out so I could read it, I saw that it was asking for my payment information, so I tapped Credit Card. This revealed the credit card information interface, all well and good. When I tapped in a field to start typing, the view zoomed in to the field, but once I typed a character, the view snapped back to the upper left corner for some reason (see the first image above), forcing me to zoom back out and drag the view back over to where I was. That worked for the first field… then the second field did the same thing. I managed to claw my way through the initial screen and hit Next… after which the interface failed to send the information properly, erased everything and started the process over. At this point I gave up.

Just to see if perhaps the Pre’s browser was to blame, and tried the same thing later on my iPhone. It was actually far worse — on several attempts, the overlay window failed to size itself properly, cutting off most or all of the form fields (see the second image on the right), with no scroll bar or other option to reveal it. It was an absolute failure. (Of course, by this time, beaten down and dejected, I had called Comcast and trudged through its labyrinthine call system, and managed to pay my bill in a mere, oh, 10 minutes.)

The Road Not Taken
Am I saying Comcast is a bunch of idiots? No. Are other parties partially responsible for the snafus I encountered? Probably. Does it matter, in the end? No. I came away with a poor impression of Comcast, and while that meant my impression of them changed not at all, they still passed up an opportunity to make my experience with them a positive one.

And how could they do that? Simple. Create a mobile-optimized site, designed for a 320 x 480 pixel screen, with a simple and straightforward process for paying your bill. No advertising, no offers, no Flash, no gimmicks, just a few clear options I don’t have to zoom in to read. Make the experience pleasant, professional, engaging, but with speed and ease-of-use as your paramount concerns. Design and TEST the site in all the major smartphone browsers. Test it with real users and make it the best you can, and then provide an easy mechanism within the site to provide additional user feedback. Have CEO Brian Roberts use it and make sure it doesn’t drive him up the wall. In other words, take it seriously.

A somewhat odd, if not ironic, sidebar is that Comcast recently released version 2.0 of its excellent iPhone app, which allows you to browse listings, set your DVR to record them, read your Comcast email, listen to your Comcast voicemail, and lots of other useful activities. It’s slick, and this is their second major version in less than a year. This, they are taking seriously.

You just can’t pay your bill on it.

In part two, I’ll discuss the larger issues around mobile sites, and why you’re shorting your customers if you don’t have one.

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