Why is mobile web UX still so poor and what can we do about it?

Didn’t we move past awful pop-ups on the web a decade ago?

Right now, in many ways, we have a better mobile web than ever before.

We have super-fast 4G connectivity; we have more advanced smartphones with displays capable of rendering the web in all its glory; we have fast-loading AMP websites and progressive web apps that won’t eat up all of our data. We can watch videos, enjoy 360-degree panoramas, and experience augmented reality all in our mobile browsers.

All of this goes some way to explaining why mobile web traffic overtook desktop in 2015 and never looked back.

But in 2018, we also have this:

The above cartoon is a painfully accurate reflection of the mobile web in 2018.

It was originally tweeted by Bas Holtrop and was retweeted by, among many other users, NeocitiesNeocities. When the ghost of bad 90s Flash websites starts dragging you on Twitter, you know there’s something wrong.

The trouble with the mobile web

A lot of the thinkpieces about why the mobile web is so bad date back to 2015, or even 2013. That’s understandable. The mobile web as a whole was younger then, much less widely adopted, and its infrastructure was less advanced. (Yours truly didn’t even own a smartphone in 2013, so my mobile web experience was… subpar to say the least).

So why haven’t things improved in the two to four years since? In some ways they have, as I pointed out at the beginning of this article. But at the same time, we’ve found other ways to ruin the user experience of the mobile web.

Pop-ups about cookies. Pop-ups trying to make you download the app. Pop-ups begging you to subscribe to a newsletter or to a publication. Or worst of all, a giant full-screen interstitial (that means it appears before the rest of the content has loaded) ad with a minuscule and often unresponsive close button.

RAAAAAGE. Screenshot by @_CharlieBuckle

Publishers tend to be the worst culprits here. I once had to stop reading a New York Times article because a full-screen ad appeared midway through the piece and refused to close, forcing me to exit my browser to get rid of it.

You might be wondering, didn’t we move past awful pop-ups on the web a decade ago? How are we still having this conversation?

Well, there’s a reason why an ‘old-school’ web host like Neocities is able to throw stones at the mobile web: it is a lot like we’ve gone back in time.

Not completely, but in terms of UX, the mobile web now greatly resembles the world wide web in its early days: it’s the hot new thing that everyone’s trying to cash in on, but few people have got the hang of designing for it yet; it’s got fantastic potential, yet the user experience often borders on aggressively awful, and it’s an annoying ad free-for-all.

Don’t you just miss this? Screenshot courtesy of oldweb.today, a brilliant tool that lets you browse the web like it’s 1999

Given that it’s early days for the mobile web as well (the iPhone was only released in 2007, so we’re still in the first decade of the mobile web), this makes a lot of sense. Except that as users, we now have much higher expectations for our web experience that we expect the mobile web to live up to.

The question is, can it?

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Mobile web UX: Who’s to blame?

Whose responsibility is it to create a better user experience for the mobile web? If I’m reading the New York Times and a full-screen ad ruins my reading experience, I’m most likely to rage at the publisher for allowing that ad onto their site.

But as a professional journalist, I’m more than familiar with the embattled state of journalism in the digital age, and publishers have to make money. So should I blame the ad agency who created the ad? Or the browser I use, for not blocking it?

The truth is that all three parties have the ability to improve user experience on the mobile web in different ways, but in order for that to happen, they need to make good UX their first priority.

Publishers have a business model which depends on users spending prolonged amounts of time on their website – so surely they should be incentivised to create a user experience that minimises interruptions. But it’s not all that simple.

David Barnes, Managing Editor at Packt Video, made a very persuasive argument as to why browsers should do the heavy lifting in improving mobile web UX, in a response to a Medium article about why publishers don’t (yet) care about the quality of the mobile web:

To ‘save the web’ we need more intelligent browsers. Browsers that don’t need mountains of CSS and font downloads to make a simple text as readable as a Medium article. Browsers that make it easier rather than harder for publishers to make a living: if we’re going to be tracked, why make each web site create tricks for tracking, when the browser could do it so easily?

The Web was originally a document viewer. Write a bit of text, mark it up, and put it on a server. The browser figures out how to display it. But on the modern web just creating a simple, readable document and hosting it is a major hassle: you have to write an app in HTML, CSS, and Javascript to contain the article — and then worry about how to get all that cruft down the pipe quickly without your server falling over.

A lot of the display, app and advertising logic could move to the browser, making web pages simple again.

The problem with the mobile web, in other words, is that all the wonderful bells and whistles that the web is now capable of have made it exponentially harder for ordinary websites to provide a good, straightforward user experience.

There are moves being made in the right direction with this, but it remains to be seen whether they’ll be enough.

One thing is certain – whichever body or organization decides to step up and properly tackle the issue of mobile web UX will be doing us all a massive favour.