Tag Archives: mobile usability
I love using well-designed mobile webapps. But I hate it when a site blocks me from using its desktop version to do something the mobile one doesn't support.
Some browsers like Opera Mobile and the UC Browser let you change their User Agent header to impersonate a desktop browser and thus gain access to most blocked desktop sites. The Android browser lets you do this on a few devices and with some custom ROMs. To see if yours does, press the Menu key, tap "More" and then "Settings" and look for an option labeled "UAString". If it's there, tap it to get a menu that lets you change the User Agent (image,right). The choices vary between phones but always include an option labeled "Desktop" which makes the browser send a User Agent that makes it look like you are using Safari on a Machintosh running OSx.
If your browser doesn't give you a UAString option don't despair, there's an easy way to enable it that's known to most mobile web developers and browser geeks but probably many end users. Heres how:
- In the browser's address bar type about:debug When you do this nothing will appear to happen, you will still be on the same page as before.
- Press the Menu key, tap "More" and then "Settings" and scroll to the very bottom and there you should see "UAString". Tap it and then try opening the pesky desktop site that keeps redirecting you to the mobile version.
I can't guarantee this will work on every single Android device. I've tried it on four in all; two running stock Android 2.3 (Samsung Nexus S 4G and Motorola Phonton) , one on stock Android 1.5 (Motorola i1) and one running CyanogenMod 6.1 (HTC Magic - Android 2.2). None of them had the UAString menu option by default by about:debug enabled it on all.
A few caveats.
- A small number of sites, including www.nytimes.com and www.espn.com can figure out that you aren't really using a a desktop browser and will still serve the mobile version to you even if you set UAstring to Desktop. But the desktop user agent reliably works to load the desktop version of most problematic sites including Facebook, Hotmail, Yahoo, MSN, Skydrive and Picassa Web Albums.
- If the Android browser is unloaded from memory by restarting the phone, killing it with a task manager or because the Android OS terminated it in a low memory situation, you will likely lose the UAString menu option and the Desktop user agent. Just reenter about:debug in the URL bar to get it back. If you are curious to see what the various User Agents look like you can view them by visiting ua.yeswap.com with the browser and UAString setting you want to check
If your browser doesn't have a Desktop user agent option you can often force the desktop version to load by using a special URL I've compiled a list of the ones I've discovered in a post: How to View the Full Version of Sites in Opera Mini and Other Mobile Browsers which is updated frequently with new additions and changes.
I love what Google is doing for mobile; pushing the limits of device and OS capabilities with Android, championing HTML5 and the Web as the future of mobile applications and adopting a "mobile first" philosophy where new services are rolled out before or at the same time as their desktop counterparts.
But I do have a bone to pick with the way one of Google most popular web services, Google Reader, works on mobile. I really wish I could use Reader on my Android phone and in Opera Mini on my Symbian. BlackBerry and feature phones, but I can't, it's way too slow and click or tap intensive.
So what do I use. I know you will laugh at this but I'm still using Bloglines Mobile as my RSS reader. I know, Bloglines is dated, ugly, slow to post updates and unreliable with day long outages every few months. Google Reader is attractive, loaded with cutting edge AJAX slickness and the Reader back end webservice is fast and rock-solid reliable. So why do stick with Bloglines? Simple, it lets me read my feeds on my phones in half the time that it takes with Google Reader.
Why is that? With the standard version of Bloglines Mobile (bloglines.com/mobile), taping the "N Updated Feeds" link at the top of feed list (left image, above) loads the full text of all the unread items in all subscribed feeds as one big page. Goggle Reader (image top, right) shows a list of the titles and requires you to click or tap on each one in order to read it.
Lets say I have 100 unread feed items. On my HTC Magic Android phone, with Bloglines, it takes about 30 seconds and three taps to load those 100 items into a page. Then I just flick scroll to read them with no waiting time between items. Total taps: 3, waiting time: 33 seconds.
With Google Reader (google.com/reader/i/) it takes only a tap and about 3 seconds to load the titles of the first 15 items. But reading each item requires a tap and then a wait of approximately 2 seconds for the item's text to load. Every 15 items there's another tap and a three second wait on the "Load More items..." link. Total taps: 116, waiting time: 248 seconds
All those taps and waits add up. The actual time spent reading in the two apps is about the same, but with Google Reader I waste 400% more time waiting for the app and tap an extra 113 times to read the same 100 items. That's 38 times as much tapping and four times as much waiting!
Every time Bloglines goes down for more than half a day I swear I will never use that unreliable dinosaur again and switch to Google Reader. But after a few days of using Reader I get so frustrated with its inefficiency that I run back to Bloglines, warts and all.
If any Googlers on the Reader team are reading this, please do your users a favor and throw together an alternate mobile reader interface that simply loads the full text of all the user's unread items in a single page. I think it would make a great 20% time project. Or maybe release that long promised Google Reader public API, preferably in App Engine friendly Python or Java, so someone else could do it.
Techmeme, the popular tech news aggregator, launched a new mobile site yesterday. The official announcement is here.
Not surprisingly the site was unusable in the Openwave emulator, which I'm using as a stand in for a feature phone (aka dumphone browser) as I no longer have a working one. The site loaded but was unusable. The text was scrunched into a single column five characters wide and the tabs and links to "Discussions" of each news item were not clickable. That's not really a problem as Mini-Techmeme, the three year old version of Techmeme for old school mobile browsers has not been discontinued and is still available at techmeme.com/mini.
The new iPhone/Android/Web OS/Opera Mini/Symbian Webkit version of Techmeme has virtually everything that's on Techmeme's desktop site including the "Discussion" feature which pulls in other stories that link to each item. The discussions are excluded from Mini-Techmeme.
It's not just Techmeme that got the new design either. Sister sites Memeorandum on politics, WeSmirch for entertainment gossip and Ballbug for baseball also have new smartphone optimized versions at memeorandum.com/m, wesmirch.com/m and ballbug.com/m respectively.
I do have one minor beef with the new design though. Why did Techmeme feel the need to disable the browser "Back" button and replace it with an in-page "Back" link? That's non-standard, non-intuitive and just plain confusing for users.
I'm sure we will be seeing more and more of these "iPhone/Android/Web OS" optimized sites. That's a good thing for users of more capable browsers but poses a problem for mobile bloggers and analysts. What to call this gendre of mid-sized (between desktop and traditional mobile web) sites? I've heard them called "iPhone", "Smartphone" and "Touch" sites but none of those really fits as they work on more than the iPhone, including with some non-smartphone browsers like Opera Mini and they don't depend on a touchscreen either. The best term I've heard seems to be "Middle Web" which was coined by Kelly Goto back in 2007. That's what I'll be using to describe this class of rich mobile sites, at least until something better comes along. Suggestions anyone?
The United States Postal Service (USPS) recently launched a mobile web site. Features include package tracking, a post office locator with information on hours and last mail pickup times and a couple of zip code search tools; one that gives the zip code for a given address and another which tells you what city a zip code is located in. For procrastinators there's also a page listing the last date to mail holiday cards and packages to various destinations.
For me the killer feature on this site would be the one that claims to return a a list of the nearest mailboxes, with mail pickup times, for a given address or zip code. This feature worked OK when searching by zip code. But whenever I tried to use it with a full street address it just took me back to the mobile USPS homepage when I clicked the Search button! There is nothing more irritating than painfully tapping in an address, street, city and state on a ten key phone keypad and than having your efforts rewarded by absolutely nothing! The looping back to the homepage bug happens randomly on some of the other search forms on the site too.
Ratings: Content Usability
Ready.mobi Score: 3 "Fair"
Mobile Link: mobile.usps.com