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I'm an IA doing a responsive site, as part of a much larger scale e-commerce site. Our pages are the only responsive parts of the overall site, so 90% of our site will not yet be responsive. Part of this is a test case, the other part is groundwork for a much larger effort.

My question has to do with header/footer.

We also have a mobile-optimized site, done by a 3rd party provider. Being that the overwhelming majority of our header/footer links will go to non-responsive and non-mobile-optimized, does it make sense to filter those out of our responsive site for mobile view?

What I've done thus far is devised a header/footer IA that includes only links to our mobile site. This way, the user stays in the mobile context and does not get bounced to a page that does not offer a good UX on the mobile.

Is this the right way to approach it?

Just not sure if the right decision is to include the same exact header/footer content on the mobile as we have for desktop/tablet.

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I've read evidence for both sides:

NO, you should not create a separate mobile navigation.

Research by Sujan Shrestha (see page 189) showed that omitting part of the desktop navigation on mobile can be disorienting to users who are familiar with the desktop site, reducing their task completion times, so you're right to think twice before changing the navigation for mobile.

Also, by hiding some of the pages from mobile, you're implicitly assuming a separate mobile context. Roughly 70% of mobile device access occurs in a stationary context (Heimonen found 67% in 2009; Church & Oliver found 71.4% in 2011, p. 71). People in these stationary contexts (and potentially even mobile users in mobile contexts) will have the same information needs as desktop users, so hiding the relevant part of your navigation will make it difficult for them to find the information they seek.


YES, you should create a separate mobile navigation

The authors of “Improving Web Search on Small Screen Devices” found that users of mobile devices accessing desktop sites often failed to complete tasks on desktop-optimized websites:

"the main reason for failure, and the associated large task timings, was the great difficulties they had in navigating the site selected from the search result. Most of their wasted time and effort was spent in becoming increasingly lost within the small window" (488)

Unless the content is essential, by providing links to it, you'll only cause your users frustration as they struggle to use an oversized interface in an undersized screen. By removing that part of the navigation, you'll improve the experience for all users who are just browsing casually and don't really need to complete tasks on those pages.

A caveat: some other researchers found that (at least in the context of mobile apps) browsing accounted for only 10-12% of the total usage (p. 186), which means that users will often be using the internet with a purpose in mind. Even if that purpose is just finding information or checking a status, you will prevent them from doing so if you hide the pages on mobile. For this reason, if I were to pick one side personally, I would choose not to hide the desktop pages from the mobile navigation. Being frustrated by bad access is not as bad as being frustrated by having no access at all.


NEITHER (the unrealistic ideal)

Ideally, the navigation for the two should eventually be the same because ideally the content should be the same, with both desktop and mobile sites pulling their content from the same database, but just formatting it differently. In her book Content Strategy for Mobile, Karen McGrane shows how cross-platform content publishing should work. It sounds like your company's forked their content for the time being, so this probably isn't a viable solution at the moment, but it's something to keep in mind for the future.


A WARNING. If you do choose to hide pages from the navigation...
...then consider a mobile navigation pitfall that McGrane warns about:
Mobile users entering your site from Google could get redirected to the mobile homepage if the page doesn't exist on mobile, then have to go to the desktop version of the homepage, and then have to search laboriously through the desktop version's internal navigation to find the page they're looking for.

If a user can find a page on Google, they should be able to access it on mobile, even if it's only the desktop version of the site. If you decide to omit the content from the header and footer, be sure that you do not also redirect search results from Google that would have gone to those pages.

One last note...McGrane also recommends looking at competitor's sites to help determine your mobile strategy:

how do they handle global navigation? Does it include the same major categories as the desktop site, or just a subset? Are navigation categories prioritized differently for mobile? How does the user access the global navigation from the homepage and other site pages?

...so doing a competitive audit might help you to answer your question.

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Thanks to both of you for your answers and response. It's going to be a difficult decision as I have a very unique situation where user will potentially navigate back and forth between the mobile site and our full HTML site. Have a strategy meeting next week to discuss this issue, and your comments certainly help me prep for that. –  jfin66 Apr 4 '13 at 16:41
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I think there are at least three areas to look at:

  • UX - while desktop and mobile versions are different due to UX and technology aspects, these should be kept similar as much as it does not conflict with user experience. Limiting access to features that are simply not accessible on mobile and thus gracefully degrading the experience is understandable and it's in general a proper direction. Regarding footer links especially, I would choose a middle way: upon tapping the footer offsite link, you could display an alert modal saying that he is now leaving the mobile optimized version and the further experience can be severely affected due to no mobile friendliness. This way you could keep all the links and still avoid confusion, so it would be having the best of two worlds. Depending on the scale of lack of mobile adjustments this may be, however, quite nasty to the users, especially when used for header navigation. If so, I would indicate somehow which links lead to mobile friendly sites and which ones lead to just desktop versions (by grouping and/or some graphical representation).

  • link migration - it's in the middle between first and second as it touches both UX and SEO. This topic has been widely described by 3nafish in his answer. In short, there should be a 1:1 relation between mobile and desktop links, so if someone enters a desktop link from mobile, he gets redirected to the same content but in mobile version of the site (considering that you have separate mobile site, not responsive layout, where it is dealt with already) AND in the same time, following a mobile link from desktop should lead to the same content in desktop version.

  • SEO - including/excluding links from mobile version may affect SEO, I think you should also ask http://webmasters.stackexchange.com for opinion.

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