Do mobile-friendly redesigns run the risk of frustrating desktop users?

Pardon my contrarianism, but I don’t do most of my web browsing via mobile on the toilet or in bed yet. I do most of my web browsing on a computer — a machine with a keyboard, mouse and no multi-touch display.

So when prominent news organizations like the Wire and NPR launch responsive websites with mobile foremost in mind, it can become a little more frustrating to visit them on my 13-inch laptop.

Take a look at this screenshot from the Wire’s homepage a few weeks ago. It’s kind of a mess, with dead black space, confusing colors and headlines gone haywire (see my annotations):

Here’s what I’m not arguing about the Wire on desktop: that addressing the needs of mobile users itself caused the desktop experience to suffer. Mobile-friendly doesn’t have to mean desktop-unfriendly. But what I am arguing is that, considering how beautiful the site looks on my mobile phone and the emphasis editor-in-chief Gabriel Snyder put on mobile in his introduction to the new site, desktop seems to have been a lower priority.

On the other hand, the Wire’s solution for what to put above the fold when the site is displayed in large windows like those on desktop computers or 10-inch tablets works pretty well. There’s a lot of news to choose from, presented in the carousel-like fashion that subjects in Poynter’s Eyetrack Tablet study indicated they preferred.

NPR, meanwhile, went in the opposite direction. After its summer redesign, the site doesn’t change all that much from your phone’s browser to your laptop’s browser. That means, depending on your browser width, you might have only one story visible to you before you start scrolling. That makes sense on phones, where there’s really only enough real estate to effectively present one story at a time, but on the desktop it feels cumbersome to immediately start scrolling once the site loads if you want to see more content. Lots and lots of scrolling to find content you want on a computer just isn’t as pleasing as flicking your thumb to find more content on a smartphone.

I emailed the Knight Lab’s Miranda Mulligan, a responsive-design guru behind the Boston Globe website who recently led a NewsU webinar on the subject, to see if I was crazy to wonder whether my less-than-optimal desktop experiences are cause for concern.

Her response, which she later tweeted, too, is that I basically am:


Look, I’m not arguing against mobile-first or future-proof web design. But mobile rhetoric sometimes strikes me as a little — a little! — overzealous. Said Mulligan in an email:

If desktop reading experiences are less than optimal, that might have to do more with the fact that no one wants to read while sitting at a desk with ginormo machine. They read on the train platform, on the train or while waiting in line for coffee. They read on the couch. They read while on the toilet or at the doctor’s office.

And tweeted Damon Kiesow, former Poynter fellow and current senior project manager at the Boston Globe, the same morning I was emailing Mulligan:

Sure, but don’t millions of us still sit at a desk in front of a computer at work all day? And don’t some of us sometimes prefer the larger screen and multiple windows of a computer and the precision of a mouse?

Let’s look at the numbers: In September, for instance, 35 percent of visits to came from phones and tablets. That’s a lot (an increase of 10 percentage points from the year before), but so is the 65 percent that still visit the site on desktop and laptop computers. The folks at NPR told me over the summer that a 50/50 split was on the horizon. ESPN reached that milestone in September. About 40 percent of Wire readers visit on mobile devices. In all these cases, mobile is growing, and will likely continue to grow, but should we assume desktop is going to zero? Should we assume desktop is heading for a small enough reader share that optimizing for desktop should be a lower priority today?

Mulligan cautioned against focusing on current numbers, saying publishers should “try to read the tea leaves and look to make a decision based upon the direction of the trend.” She likened desktop to old bulky cordless phones: “Do we still use the Zack Morris phone?”

I’m not arguing that newly responsive sites are ignoring desktop — certainly not to the extent that previous designs ignored mobile. Too many sites are late to the game and have yet to implement meaningful mobile strategies, so changes to the Wire and NPR that offer better navigation and eliminate irritating pinch-to-zoom are a net positive.

But mobile-first talk that’s altogether dismissive of the desktop experience strikes me as almost too forward-looking. Just as the Orange County Register’s Eric Spitz has counterintuitively argued that some newspapers late to acknowledging the digital revolution ultimately overcorrected and weakened the print product too quickly, I wonder if we’ll see some sites overreach with mobile, prematurely accelerating the decline in desktop readership.

No question news organizations have been too slow to hop on the mobile train, but once on board I hope they don’t speed away from desktop too quickly while readers are still there.

Related: Atlantic Wire rebrands, launches responsive site targeting mobile | NPR’s new redesign aims to create a less overwhelming reading experience

We have made it easy to comment on posts, however we require civility and encourage full names to that end (first initial, last name is OK). Please read our guidelines here before commenting.

  • John Smith

    I don’t feel hatred for NPR. They’re just another group of thinkers incapable of supporting themselves in the marketplace and thus have traded their self-respect for a government subsidy. There is lots of it going around, and in large enough concentrations – say DC – they manage to convince themselves that they have special insights, special dignity, special something – that makes having to do such craven things as earning their audience somehow beneath them. There are hundreds of such people in government PR shops, convernment contracting shops, you name it. NPR at least provides a product – an often informative and innovative product – and for that deserves some applause. But the idea that the market these days requires any kind of subsidy is nonsense. In the original days of NPR when media barriers were very high and the number of outlets was artificially limited (by, surprisingly enough, government – working in “our interest”) a case for non-commercial outlets was at least plausible. These days when there are hundreds of streamers and such, more syndication deals than were at one time imagined, and no shortage of content providers capable of providing contracted content, the idea that the citizens need to be protected from commercial monopolies is stupid. So I feel no hatred for NPR – just amazement that obviously intelligent people have so little in the way of self-confidence that they cannot tear themselves away from being welfare recipients.

    You’re bright, educated, experienced. Why is the free market so frightening?

  • bigyaz

    At least you didn’t let your hatred of NPR color your thinking about its site design…

  • Tom22

    The mere choice of “minority” vs “majority” is the core of the problem.

    Certainly “lowest common denominator” comes to mind whenever one says “majority” ..even if the current majority uses more not less.

    There are “segments” , and the assumption that segments should not be served and that companies should not go aggressively after grabbing large market share in a third of the market rather than getting 15% of the total “one size fits all” market certainly risks a bland homogenization

  • Tom22

    Thanks for the interesting information. In the end your job and that of the other
    consultant it to put information in a form that people will read it from where
    they want to read it. The comments
    quoted in the article about people doing their reading at the doctor’s office
    or on the couch etc are probably accurate.

    I was googling articles on the subject because I have become
    increasingly frustrated by the “dumbing down” of computer interfaces
    via what I’d call “the windows 8 malady” . I really feel that all the information I
    could get before in something like the busy page you can suggest, is getting compromised and you readily admit
    that it is so but done for the noble cause of providing an environment where
    curious people keep reading and learning where they might have left befoer,

    … my misgivings run beyond the media sites though. The new UI habits and move away from
    detailed navigation layouts accustoms people to getting less. Hopefully the Adobe Creative suite doesn’t go
    the way of Windows8 , but there seems to
    be an increasingly big divide.

    The “aps” we have on our phones… are
    increasingly becoming our main interface with tools beyond pure media

    Really my misgivings are too complex for me to express in
    this forum and I’ve yet to find a concise way of putting them. At the heart though is a push to a
    “guided” experience.

    Computers feel less and less there to snap to my beck and
    call and feel like I’m on a scripted not dissimilar the customer service
    “phone tree’s” we must navigate at
    banks and insurance companies (we’re sort of driving, but need to drive
    through tiers and tiers to get where we want,
    not seeing the destination choice but just hoping we’ll get that choice after the next

    Vague misgivings

    - Hal 2001 space odyssy –
    just tell him what you want and he’ll do it for you – no control without

    - Linear thinking
    interface which absolutely loses me as my mind wanders

    - feeling I need to
    be polite to my computer and stand in line and go through the etiquette it has
    at its little venue

    - Hammer vs Assistant
    - without the spooky Hal stuff, it still
    makes so many programs and sites less useful to me when it assumes a goal .. I
    might hit a nail when I pick up my hammer, but I might also use it to break a
    piggy bank open, or gently tap a lid on
    a crusty container, or beat out a rythym
    on the side of a steel drum

    - this guided
    experience gets in my way and makes me feel less able and more stuck under the
    thumb of institutions

    - Twitter generation
    ? People are increasingly unable to
    grasp the value of learning learn background of a subject and take time to
    examine view points that they know they feel are misguided in hope for a bit of
    it that might help them adjust their viewpoint to make their suggestions
    stronger (assuming that understanding what they disagreement will force them into
    compromise – when sometimes what they learn might let them do exactly the
    opposite and address a loop hole)

    - twitter generation
    2 – reducing conversation to 180 words might force concise communication but it tends so much to
    “take-away” and so much farther to the “why I think this”

    - twitter generation 3 –
    a habit of being unable to even listen to more detailed sentences or
    discussions because of a true lack of attention-span… almost the
    incomprehensibility of a foreign language.
    A sentence with conditional clauses, within a broader hypothetical
    context laid out in the preceding sentence ,
    is frequently attacked as a red herring when it was only painting a
    sentiment in an analogical way rather than being a free standing truth.

    Some of those bullets might seem unconnected to this web
    design discussion and as I led in, I
    haven’t really developed the right words to express my strong but vague misgivings.

    NPR has a charge to deepen understanding, and I worry that the design of the web site
    you have moved towards abandons some of the goal of training of minds to think
    broadly in the hope of reaching more minds.
    It is as much the direction as this one step. It is easy to argue that your step as a stand
    alone choice is not significantly thought limiting, but a trend of such
    decisions , but I don’t think it is unfair for me to expect that the next
    iteration might go even further away from what we once had.

  • SFMH57

    Do they frustrate the laptop/desktop user? How long do you have? Slate, at the moment, is my A-1 example. Reading it on my desktop is an exercise in total frustration as I get to see the same article posted 2 or 3 times across the screen. Not a bit pleasant or easy to read in that format. And I’m really not at all interested in trying to read a text-rich post on a tiny phone screen. Not yet. I hope not ever. And don’t even get me going on the “merits” of video on phone screens.

  • Emmeaki

    I know absolutely nothing about web design, but is it possible to create a desktop version AND a mobile version so as not to alienate anyone?

  • Robin S Summertown

    Yep, I can sit here on my laptop and arm’s length away and see just fine.

    What has been an issue is the new captcha format, little tiny numbers on a colored background. I have to zoom the screen to see them. Imagine doing that on a small reader of some sort.

  • Wade Stanley

    I almost posted a similar response. I can’t see the cell phone screens well enough to fool with them.

  • Robin S Summertown

    In all of this making it smaller era there is one group that is being ignored, Baby Boomers. Being one myself I can identify with the difficulty of reading what is on a small device. I don’t need reading glasses generally but put me in a room with low light and trying to read the small screen on my phone it becomes futile.

  • CoryBe

    I’ll just reply by saying it took me several tries and gymnastics to read your response and leave this comment via my phone.

  • John Smith

    Money, IMHO, is over-rated. It’s important, that’s for sure, but the people who bitch the loudest about money (not putting you in that group) seem to me often the ones without the imagination and street-sense to get around it. Michelle Malkin has built a following without a lot of start-up cash, so for that matter did Arianna Huffington. There are a number of small websites building a dedicated following, and the folks at Twitter and Facebook didn’t start with tons o’ bucks. Much of the money that the conservatives dropped on 2012 political races went for naught – Karl Rove, who used to be a genius, had an incredibly poor record. So money – while you need “enough” (a slippery term) – is not the guarantor of success that many assume.

    A good product – smart ideas, imaginative packaging, the ability to project trust – is a much better bet than a me-too with lots of investors. If money were the big story, Microsoft would have a successful search site, Yahoo would be smart enough not to ruin their e-mail system, and Apple wouldn’t be languishing in the darkness between “yesterday” and “what’s next”?

    just a thought.

  • Sam Kirkland

    Hey, Dean, thanks for reading. Sorry if the Wire example wasn’t clear: That grid layout disappears on smaller devices. It’s really an awesome site on my iPhone — I recommend checking it out.

  • Sam Kirkland

    Thanks for reading, Cory, and for weighing in.

    Certainly I agree with your first point — and I even say so in the piece. Re your second point, of course frustrating no one is the best answer. But most mobile-first stories seem to focus on all the positives without acknowledging tradeoffs that might be frustrating users like me on desktop. In most cases, those are worthy tradeoffs (and I mention that the NPR and Wire redesigns are net positives), but I don’t think that means potential downsides shouldn’t be pointed out and explored.

  • Billy_boe

    H P has been a liberal site since their inception. The AOL buyout just turned them corporate. The main reason the populace can’t win out over money is that some people can’t give up the political right / left battle to fight for the greater good of the country.

  • RF_Dude

    I was thinking the same thing, Billy, but you beat me to it by a long shot!

  • John Smith

    Thoughtful, but in trying to squeeze several pigs into one sausage you’ve come up with a website that’s finally as bland as your content. I suppose there’s some “value” in that, but given that it’s NPR you overlook the real opportunity and that is to actually be news instead of just another libby PR front. I know, I know – you;re balanced and do good work and all the other bromides. I’ve heard them before. They weren’t true then either. The new format could have actually been a new format – instead it’s just different web templates. It’s not a “nothing to see here ” story – there’s added utility – but it is as Howard Cosell might have said “emblematic of the weakness of the media imagination.” A Gentleman’s C, in other words.

  • John Smith

    I suppose it would be too simple to identify the device and sent it to whichever format made the most sense?

  • John Smith

    I am among those banned by Huffington because I wouldn’t hand over my identity to their sales team. I am apparently supposed to feel a sense of remorse or something, They’d gotten typically libby in their politics and there’s a bunch of other places to find the content they were re-writing so I just erased them from the bookmarks. I don’t miss them. The format on their comments had grown sketchy, but even worse was the content. They seem to attract mostly true believers, and you can find the same erudition on Another stellar AOL “defeat from the jaws of victory” story.

  • Dean P. Simmer |

    Here’s the big question though. It’s nearly 2014. Many publications and traditional news outlets are long overdue for site refreshes. Here in Detroit, both of our major newspapers have been running the same basic site for 2+ years. Would you propose they refresh/redesign with a “desktop first” mentality at the cost of mobile usage? One of the two sites in question, when visited on mobile, has one article on screen. ONE. That seems like a poor use of resources.

    It seems like the driver needs to be readability and the large majority of site redesigns are honoring this, in an incredible way. Yes, users may need to learn to rely more on search than categories, but the dated categories of our newspapers don’t work on the web anyhow (seriously, which category is Mitch Albom? Sports? Opinion? Non-fiction best-sellers?).

    I guess I don’t see, at all, how NPR fits into your perfect example of bad execution on desktop. And The Wire website. Well gosh, that’s just terrible on any device. The visual noise is distracting. That’s just bad design, period, not a “mobile-first at expense of desktop” one.

  • CoryBe

    There are three big problems with this non-story:

    1. More news sites look like crap on a mobile device than any number of examples you can find illustrating the opposite, which by the way, are minor design flaws compared to the much more serious problems with mobile rendering.

    2. Would you rather frustrate the minority or the majority? Clearly the best option is neither, but I’d rather lean toward shining on the majority growth platform (mobile) than the other way around.

    3. Stories like this one send a terrible message in the industry, which is already way behind on mobile. It becomes fodder for the “protect the desktop at all costs” crowd, which slows experimentation and aggressiveness on the mobile front, which is the platform that will define the future success of any news organization.

  • Patrick Cooper

    Hi Sam, I managed the homepage-redesign project at NPR. I wish you had reached out to us in your reporting of this piece. We considered and tested for desktop extensively throughout the redesign. And the results have been great. Our homepage visitors and visits are up since the launch, and their pages per visit, pageviews and average visit duration are way up.

    Miranda and Damon are absolutely right about where everyone’s platform numbers are going and how news organizations should be reacting in the face of such disruption. But you’re also right that desktop viewers still matter. Their numbers are still huge, and it’s critical how an org handles that audience during the platform shift. Either you dump any attention to the desktop audience and chase a new mobile base, or you seek to manage the transition and bring your desktop audience along as they too shift to mobile. Either approach can be smart and viable. Your choice should depend on your audience history and outlook. At NPR, while the future is mobile, we still have a devoted desktop audience. We’ve embraced responsive design to let us work efficiently across platforms but still deliver more than a phone-design-fits-all result.

    And while we’ve worked that way throughout our site redesign, it was especially important to do so on the homepage. Our desktop numbers are higher on homepage than inside pages; and while I’ve never seen an industry report one way or the other, I’d imagine other sites see the same. Users get to homepages by typing in URLs or using bookmarks, and both tasks are currently easier on desktop than mobile. Mobile so far offers a more competitive experience around social and search, and those users mostly hit specific content on inside pages.

    So, our team worked in stages: first phone, then larger screens. For the desktop, we gathered user feedback on the existing homepage and closely examined its metrics. We found that for as many stories as we had crammed onto the existing desktop page, particularly above the fold, our pages per visit and average visit duration weren’t great. A certain type of user — the hardcore news junkie — liked the page, but these users didn’t visit us en masse. They were more likely to visit a Google News or CNN. Our users were far more “curious explorers” or interested in deep knowledge about certain topics. We established these personas through audience surveys, but we saw them clearly in site metrics as well. We had 100+ headlines on the desktop homepage. Seeing all the headlines, the average user clicked just one and left.

    Paradox of choice was clearly in effect, so we went about studying how much to reduce the choices. We instituted Lean UX processes where we: established our assumptions about the homepage on desktop, did quick sketching sessions to play out the assumptions, conducted user-testing sessions every week, and iterated our assumptions based on what we learned. In about a month, we’d learned two key things. We’d learned our users had more awareness of each story and its unique qualities when we showed a focused flow and took more time and space to explain each. That connection, we believed, would lead to more clicks (and happier users). Also, just as importantly, we had learned our reductions could go too far. Our initial desktop designs showed only a central flow, and users pushed back, saying the page didn’t “feel like a homepage.” So, we tested adding a “From NPR News” box of quick, top-of-the-news headlines to the desktop view, next to the main flow. The user concerns vanished. To us, the burst of headlines was a desktop design convention. But the convention helped. For desktop users, that burst checked their mental box of homepage recognition and broad news awareness. They then felt more free to scroll, explore and enjoy the central news flow.

    I give all these details in service of three points. One, we still care about the desktop user. We just care about the desktop user now in terms of site location and persona, instead of blindly. Two, we are not our users. As journalists, we love parsing tightly packed information, and we build up expectations about how news sites should look. Our users consistently surprise us. Three, metrics analysis and user-testing processes are critical in bridging that divide. Such details help construct user stories, challenge our assumptions and give us better predictions. While we’re pleased with the leaps in our metrics, we know our audience led us to them.

    Reasonable people can disagree on design solutions. There are lots of things about our new homepage our team plans to tweak, test and evolve over time. As mobile grows and demands new answers, much of the news industry appears to be in a similarly iterative mood. But it’s important as we go about this work that we have a richer conversation, one that goes beyond mobile versus desktop and focuses instead on the disparate qualities of audiences, behaviors and organizations. More than just hopping a train, we have to run the whole railroad.

  • Trilby16

    Slate’s new horrible redesign is another good example. There was an enormous outcry, so I guess not everyone has migrated to mobile viewing quite yet. Of course the outcry was ignored by Slate….
    Another horror that seems common in today’s redesigns are the “sticky nav bars” that take up valuable real estate at the top of your screen. Do these look better in mobile, somehow? BTW, the sticky nav bars can be removed by ad-blocker. That makes me happy.

  • Billy_boe

    Before Huffington Post changed it’s “privacy” policy, it changed it’s posting format to be mobile friendly. It is now impossible to follow on a laptop;
    Just as well though. Made it easier to cancel my account when they started requiring profiles to link their phone number and a Facebook account to accommodate more lucrative data mining.

  • markstencel

    The key here is audience type and needs — not platform. Different audiences need different design solutions.

    A lot of thought, research and testing went into designing NPR’s newish responsive homepage. And there clearly was pushback from some especially hard-news-focused users, which is why I suspect so many sites that have gone this direction end up with some form of “above-the-fold” news digest for desktop/laptop readers. (Some of that pushback also was echoed in the newsroom, of course.) But the research also showed that NPR’s core, highly curious audience wanted less headline splat and more editorial choice and selectivity — with stories presented in ways that helped lure people in, like listening to the radio or paging through a newspaper or magazine. For THAT audience, _scrolling_ was as natural as using Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr. And for those users, social media turns out to be a better design metaphor than the desktop design standard most of us have relied on since 1995/96 (headline, bullet, bullet, bullet….).

    The trick with this kind of design ends up being story mix — but that has less to do with design than it does with programming/editorial choices. (One of NPR’s constant challenges: Too much hard news? Not enough? That core/curious audience craves and expects both.) Navigation and sub-brands also can be tricky. But based on what I’ve heard from my former colleagues at NPR, the traffic has so far validated the research and testing — much more so than initial user comments, as expected:

  • Terry Heaton

    Be careful here, or you’ll miss the reality that video is the real multiscreen disruptor. The only thing different with video on a desktop versus video on mobile is size. Everything else is the same.