Forget the Desktop. Web Designers Should Make Sites for Phones and Tablets First.

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Aug. 21 2012 5:53 PM

Forget the Desktop

Web designers should make sites for phones and tablets first.

Designers: Design for my tablet first!
Designers: Design for my tablet first!

Photo by Mathew Sumner/Getty Images.

Every morning I wake up too early, reach for my iPad, and scan the morning’s tech headlines. This is a pathetic enough existence, but the Web sites I frequent aren’t helping. Take the tech-news behemoth TechCrunch, a site that almost always causes my tablet to go haywire. First, slowly, elements load in an order that makes no sense—the body text appears first, then the site’s top and right-side navigation bar shows up, and only then, after many excruciating seconds, does the headline appear. At this point I’m mildly annoyed, but look, the story’s up—so I try to calm down and begin to read. But then, a half second or so after the page loads, the story’s text and headline suddenly disappear. What?! Why would the story appear and then disappear?

If you’re lucky, the disappearance lasts only a second. The story comes back, you figure there’s some kind of bug, and you forgive TechCrunch’s designers, because, hey, when they created their site, they were making something for traditional PCs, and here you are accessing the page on some kind of weirdo tablet. But sometimes you’re not lucky, and the text will flash on, off, and on again, and then the whole site will disappear and you’ll get an advertisement for TechCrunch’s iPad app. In order to read the story you’ve got to click a tiny link dismissing the advertisement. By now you’ve spent nearly 10 seconds waiting for the story, your blood’s boiling, and you’re ready to blackball TechCrunch forever.

But you can’t do that. If you started blackballing sites because they didn’t work very well on the iPad, you’d end up dismissing half the Web. TechCrunch’s mobile experience isn’t great, but it’s not uniquely terrible. From the New York Times to The New Yorker to Google News to Salon and, yes, even Slate, many news sites look and feel kind of crappy when you access them through tablet devices. But it’s not just news sites; even big-time Web operations like Amazon.com don’t look great on the iPad.

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The problem is that much of the Web is just too overcrowded for tablet displays. When you load up a site on your iPad, you’re often presented with a crush of text, pictures, and videos that are jammed up together. Sites are powered by code that’s too slow and buggy for small devices, they’re stuffed with buttons and links that are too small to hit with a finger, and their pictures don’t look good on super-high-definition tablet displays. The basic problem is that designers have done very little to accommodate the tablet—they may have slightly tweaked their pages for the iPad, but often only as an afterthought to a primary site that was designed for laptops and desktops.

It’s time for that to change. The iPad is three years old, and its rise seems unstoppable. And the iPad isn’t alone—Google’s Nexus 7, Amazon’s Kindle Fire, and soon perhaps Microsoft’s Surface will become big sources of Web traffic. The Web needs to catch up with these devices. Designers should create sites that don’t just accommodate tablets but prioritize them. In fact, they ought to think of tablets first when they’re creating new sites. Only after building pages for 7- and 9-inch touchscreens should they tweak their sites for desktop browsers.

Why prioritize tablets? It’s not just because the iPad and its kin are quickly becoming the main way we navigate the Web. (According to several measures, mobile devices account for more than 10 percent of Web traffic, and these numbers are continually growing.) It’s also because the constraints imposed by tablets—small screens and relatively low bandwidth and processing power—make for better websites even on desktop devices. Well-designed mobile sites are often faster, prettier, and easier to navigate than their desktop counterparts. If designers created for tablets first, the whole Web would get better.

Note that I’m not calling on sites to merely create tablet or smartphone-optimized alternatives to their desktop versions. Lots of sites do this, but because many firms don’t have the resources to maintain two or three completely separate designs, their tablet and smartphone versions often feel like poor step-cousins. They don’t offer all of the functionality of the primary site—for instance, Slate’s smartphone version doesn’t load reader comments—and when designers make improvements to their sites, they often go to the desktop version first.

This is understandable: For most sites, desktop views account for the bulk of traffic and advertising revenue. What’s more, the mobile Web is new and still in flux—there are lots of different phones and tablets with varying technological capabilities, and designers aren’t used to creating compelling sites for them. Then there’s the money problem. The entire Web advertising industry is built around the desktop browser, and tablet-friendly Web design isn’t very accommodating of the kinds of distracting, interactive ads that now fuel the Web.

For all these reasons, Web companies should focus on building a unified experience that can work across every gadget. In an ideal world, the mobile site wouldn’t be an offshoot of the desktop site—the desktop site would be the same as the mobile site, a clean, quick-loading page that looked good on every gadget.

This isn’t a radical proposal. Many Web designers build their sites according to this principle—Jason Kottke and John Gruber’s blogs were designed for desktop browsers, but because they load quickly and aren’t cluttered by extraneous elements, they look like they were built with mobile devices in mind. As BuzzFeed’s John Herrman points out, several new Web start-ups have mimicked these minimalist designs, including the blogging platforms Svbtle and Medium, a discussion site called Branch, and the subscriber-only Twitter alternative App.net. All these sites look like they were created with the iPad in mind and then ported to the desktop. Not coincidentally, they are all also beautiful and intuitive to navigate.

Of course, it’s easy for a well-funded start-up to prioritize the mobile Web. Established sites that rely on advertising can’t jump to mobile devices as easily. But they ought to try. Over the next few months—especially if Apple releases a smaller, cheaper iPad and Amazon updates the Kindle Fire—traffic from mobile browsers will skyrocket. Soon, readers aren’t going to tolerate the kind of slow, buggy tablet experience that’s common today. If your page takes too long to load, if your pictures are blurry, if your links aren’t easy to click, and if you keep throwing up an ad for your iPad app, I’ll take my tablet somewhere else—somewhere it’s appreciated.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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