“Why the disruptive ‘mobile only’ web redefines the web we know and (sort of) love” – Karen McGrane at Confab

Confab Events logoI’ve been attending Confab 2013 in London, and trying to write up as much of it as possible, and publish it as quickly as possible. This is partly because it is fun to do, and partly because I don’t want to start Wednesday morning with a ‘to do’ list that opens with “Write 15 blog posts about Confab.”

Here are my notes from yesterday’s final session.

“Why the disruptive ‘mobile only’ web redefines the web we know and (sort of) love” – Karen McGrane

Karen McGrane closed out day one of Confab with her usual mix of funny observations and keen insight. She started with the tale of how Ken Olsen’s DEC computer corporation had gone from being second to only IBM, to completely obliterated in the course of a decade. This was because they made great computers. Amazing computers. Mini-computers that suddenly enabled a whole revolution in small business.

And Ken could not for the life of him see that anybody would ever have a reason to have a computer in the home*. So when personal computers began to appear, they simply couldn’t compare with DEC for specifications. The were, in Karen’s words, cheap and plastic and trashy. They were laughable because they stored memory on cassette tapes. They were like a child’s toy compared to a DEC machine. And they dominated the market.

Karen explained that disruption to industry often happens when people who have previously been excluded from accessing a technology, get access to a cheap inferior version of it. It has happened time and time again in technology. But it doesn’t matter that it is inferior, because it is the access that makes the difference.

She forsees the same thing happening with the desktop web, and insurgent mobile. Karen had an impressive set of figures illustrating just how many people in the developed world only access the internet through their smartphones, and who have no broadband access at home. That number is especially large in the US amongst ethnic minorities and the poor. These “mobile only” internet users are going to totally disrupt our idea of what the web is. And Karen guessed that most people working in the web have spent more time on conversations about the tiny fractions of users who don’t have JavaScript enabled rather than they have about these “mobile only” consumers.

This is all great news for content strategy people, because it gives us the chance to rip up twenty years worth of bad content design on the desktop and start afresh. Yay!

Well, sort of.

Karen pointed out how irked she was by blog posts touting “10 great ways to write for the mobile web.” There is no such thing as writing for the mobile web, Karen said, there is just good writing. In fact, Karen half-joked, if you just started concentrating on doing “good writing”, you’d end up with a better experience on desktop and mobile anyway, without having to redesign or re-develop a single page.

Sadly a lot of businesses have not seen it this way. They’ve been so desperate to get into mobile, that they hire a mobile team, and they build a mobile website, and it is different to the main website with different content because they are being cutting edge and agile. They make “a fun-sized candy bar version of their content.” But they simply don’t have customers who deserve a better or worse class of experience because of the device they are using — they have customers who want good content.

She cited the American Cancer Society saying they felt they had a moral imperative to make all of their content easily available on mobile because the overlap between people who only have internet access on their phone and who have poor access to health education is strong.

And she also had some examples of when it all goes wrong, including…ahem…the “Guardian truncation team” — a Tumblr dedicated to embarrassing headline truncations where the words in the headline don’t fit a pre-defined grid space on a Guardian product which…erm…well…I may have had a hand in designing myself.

Karen finished with this thought: “Disruptive technologies eventually get good, or redefine what good is.” Mobile only web usage is redefining what “good” is all around us right now.


I’ve now got about eleventy-two half-finished Confab blog posts on the go, so who knows which notes I’ll be publishing next…

DEC PDP-8 computer

This is how modern your desktop website looks on a smartphone.

*In fairness to Ken, some people claim this quote is often taken out of context, and what he meant was that you wouldn’t need a sci-fi-style central computer in the home to control automatic doors and the lights and the heating. Or presumably, if he’d seen the idea, your pointlessly network-enabled internet fridge. [Return to post]

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