Why Websites Need to be Revamped for Touch and Tablets

By Matthew Braga

The launch of mobile Safari was huge, because it promised to bring a true desktop browsing experience to mobile devices. But there's always been one problem — bringing a desktop browsing experience to a mobile device is just plain stupid, because the two platforms are nothing alike.

The launch of mobile Safari was huge, because it promised to bring a true desktop browsing experience to mobile devices. Products like Opera had tried in the past, and failed, making Apple's iPhone particularly welcome. But there's always been one problem with mobile Safari — bringing a desktop browsing experience to a mobile device is just plain stupid. The two platforms are nothing alike.

Craigslist is a website designed for desktop browsing. It's a wall of links, equally exciting and overwhelming at the same time. And for someone with large fingers, it's near impossible to navigate on a touch screen device. In what will probably be regarded as Steve Jobs' famous " Thoughts on Flash" last week, the Apple co-founder accused Adobe's flash of being "designed for PCs using mice, not for touch screens using fingers." That's a little unfair, however; the problem isn't flash, it's the internet, a browsing experience birthed in the 90's when touch-screens were barely a blip on the mobile horizon. If touch devices outpace desktops in the battle for our eyes, repackaging that traditional browsing experience won't be good enough. We're going to have to get a lot more finger friendly for the mobile web to succeed.

 Those contextual menus? All based on hover. Lets see your iPad do that.
further UI issues. Websites are designed for the precise interaction of a mouse, complete with tiny scrollbars, links and buttons. Fingers, on the other hand, are not precise, but large, unpredictable appendages that cover a much larger area. You're either required to zoom to an uncomfortable level just to ensure you've clicked the right place, or risk jumping to an unintended page. After all, there's a reason Apple packaged a new, touch-driven OS with their iPhone and iPad, instead of regular OS X — can we really expect the desktop web to function with the same ease and usability on a touch-driven device?

Clearly, there's some changes that need to be made. Text input, for example, is entirely contextual on a mobile device. Unless there's a web form present for inputting information, invoking that virtual keyboard can be difficult, if not near impossible. Zoho is a great example of a complex, rich-media web application that doesn't always behave as expected on touch-driven devices. Being unable to call that keyboard up on demand means some websites simply refuse to work.

The inability to hover also present a unique problem for UI designers. Navigation menus, many of which are based on hover-driven AJAX code, need to be re-written for click-friendly usage. Links need to be made larger, and less reliant on rolling menus, and searching a site should be a function of the browser itself, not a small text box in the corner of a page.

 Maybe Microsoft's on to something with their new, touch-driven UI?
beyond the borders of the screen like a waterfall, accessible with just the swipe of a finger.

While idealistic, changes like these aren't all feasible. Even now, both users and designers are gaining a better idea of what works and what doesn't on touch-screen devices, but it's clear something needs to change. The desktop web of old is not a friendly place for human fingers, and if the mobile world is going to succeed, that's a fact that should be recognized. Devices like the iPad are one step down that path, forcing content producers to think differently about how their information should be displayed. It's a new set of rules, for a new set of devices, and it's our fingers that will determine where the future of the internet lies.  
Image via Flickr user Johan Larsson.