I've touched on this in a couple of my other questions. I'd like to have a more direct question addressing this issue. Am I right in thinking "Desktop context" & "mobile context" no longer exists. We can no longer make assumptions about the tasks users would like to perform on mobile phones? Therefore there is no longer a need to ask the question whether the site is going to be mobile specific or responsive???... (correct me if I'm wrong) because all content available on mobile must be your whole site and not specific tasks you have ruled as mobile only?

Is it not difficult to navigate larger sites though if your full content is made available?

  • 1
    the idea is that you want your 'whole site' to be tailored to mobile to begin with. That, in turn, is all you often need on the desktop version as well. It's called 'mobile first' but is essentially a form of extreme content editing.
    – DA01
    Commented Feb 26, 2013 at 21:28
  • This article from Zappos on their mobile commerce patterns should add some context to the answers you consider: emarketer.com/Article/…
    – Taj Moore
    Commented Mar 1, 2013 at 5:38

7 Answers 7


You seem to be mixing context and content. Pretty much all your content should be available for mobile and desktop although there are exceptions in certain situations, such as if you provide a heavily location based service on mobile.

However there is definitely a mobile context which drives the way you prioritise and deliver that content for mobile. Assuming that just because the user is on a mobile device, then the user is actually mobile is a non starter - 20% of mobile use is on the couch. Making device based decisions about content inclusion is tantamount to mind-reading. You cannot and should not do it.

Quoting Luke Wroblewski:

Just because my screen is small doesn’t give anyone insight to my behaviours, desires and needs.

You can tune the presentation and hierarchy of information on mobile devices, but the presence is valuable in both cases. Absolutely you can use responsive design to accomplish this.

Much of this answer so far comes from a brief interview Luke Wroblewski gave to Joe Welinski of BlinkUX, of which you can read my rough version of the transcript.

Having said that, it's important to really understand your mobile users and design for them rather than designing differently for mobile just for the sake of it.

As something of a clue to the difference between mobile and desktop context and yet the need for similarity in content, there is an increasing importance in being able to provide a cross channel experience where you can resume a task on desktop, that you started on mobile (or the other way around, but that's less common).

Read more on that by Karen McGrane on A List Apart where she ends with:

It’s time to stop imagining that smartphones, tablets, and desktops are containers that each hold their own content, optimized for a particular browsing or reading experience. Users don’t think of it that way. Instead, users imagine that each device is its own window onto the web.

The desktop context is this: You have huge amounts of space on a static screen (or more than one screen) where you have the full attention of the viewer, in a comfortable environment, and with a 99.99 percent uptime on a mega-fast broadband connection – and a keyboard and mouse to boot.

The mobile context is this: You have more constraints: Smaller screens, patchy or dynamic signal coverage, fat fingers, lower performance, limited data plans, attention span (data snacking), location and posture. But you also have more capabilities: orientation detection, dynamic location detection, compass, accelerometer. How many wifi hotspot providers don't think about the mobile context when giving you a free wifi signup form?

In addition to the constraints and capabilities that the mobile context provides, you also have different behaviours. There are three types of user behaviour on mobile - what Google termed urgent now, repetitive now, and bored now, and depending on the purpose of the website you should align your design with the target behaviour. Don't confuse these behaviours with the more focused user needs and desires for a given website/app.

Now here's the thing: the line between desktop and mobile is getting fuzzier all the time - some desktops are starting to encroach on the mobile space with removable touchscreen displays and the like. And as I mentioned above, there is an increasing case for cross channel tasking. The couch use case is when I'm too lazy or it's inconvenient to go to my desktop, but a website that is too awkward to use on a mobile device, or that is missing content is going to force me to move to desktop. We've all been there right?

It's not that there isn't a mobile context and a desktop context - it's just no longer a binary state.

I go into the desktop-to-mobile ux in more depth, with examples in my slides/notes on the mobile user experience.

  • So is it that the context is no longer clear not that there isn't a mobile context?
    – Reloaded
    Commented Feb 25, 2013 at 0:33
  • Exactly - and extended my answer to that effect Commented Feb 25, 2013 at 9:42
  • In 2020 still true. There is one recent enough website that won't let me navigate via menu to a URL on the mobile that I can on the desktop. Direct link still works and the content is "manageable" for my large, hires phone screen. A small thing, but disproportionately annoying.
    – Jason A.
    Commented Nov 11, 2020 at 9:16

Some pertinent info in this post. In early 2012 Jakob Nielsen stated that it is often desirable to have a mobile specific site.

Summary: Good mobile user experience requires a different design than what's needed to satisfy desktop users. Two designs, two sites, and cross-linking to make it all work.

There was lots of push back against that sentiment, there are some links in that post I linked to or you can just search on "separate mobile site vs. responsive design" to see a wealth of arguments for/against, most for the responsive approach and against Nielsen's suggestion.

I followed the argument last year and it seemed only Nielsen was presenting findings based on real testing and research, and most everyone else was basing their stance on anecdotal evidence and personal experience (but often very significant personal experience). In any case the single-responsive-site is much more prevalent. The single-responsive-site approach requires less resources (I don't think that is much disputed) and that might be a big factor in it's popularity.

But recently I've noticed a kind of hybrid, which is a single responsive site but it looks and behaves significantly different on different devices. A great example of this is news.google.com. It's seems more or less the same content, but it's presented very differently on my desktop and on my iPad. The iPad is more iPad-native like in that you scroll sideways to access different sections. Although google recommends a single responsive site, in the case of their new site they've basically designed a separate site for mobile devices! It is accessed through the same URL, but there's definitely 2 designs in play. In a sense they've taken most of Nielsen's advice (providing a mobile specific design) while keeping the single URL. It works quite well, but google has much expertise and resources to throw at this problem.

So the issue is complex and not black and white, and it's constantly changing as the technology advances. Most technological development seems down the path of a single codebase and a single set of URLs, but (at least) 2 designs, in some sense.

  • Yes - I think we are just all still trying to work this out as it changes under our feet! Interesting about the Google news site. Commented Feb 27, 2013 at 21:29
  • Agreed Roger, and thanks Obelia I'll take a look at that example.
    – Reloaded
    Commented Feb 27, 2013 at 23:13

Navigating complete version of any website, on a 4.3" screen is a pain. On the other hand, even now, functionality of mobile apps, tends to be heavily limited (speaking from user perspective). That's why I am not using these, rather navigating to full version of particular site. That said, I think you are right, hovewer, websites should still be optimized for viewing with 4.3 inch or less screens.


You are correct in stating that users of mobile clients expect to have access to full content and functionality. See the Facebook case for example. The challenge, however, is to provide this given the limitations of less screen real-estate and no physical keyboard.

On a side note, there are several mobile-specific Ux paradigms that successfully cope with such limitations. For example, multi-line lists are commonly used instead of tables to fit the narrow screens of smartphones. See jQuery Mobile Listviews for example.

To summarize, in my opinion, it is critical to ask whether the client is desktop or mobile, so that you can provide the same content and functionality in a usable manner in both contexts.


First, I'm in favor to "Responsive Design": a website should deliver the same content to booth desktop and mobile (and everything between them).

Anyway, I want to point out that there are some specific situations where the difference "desktop context" and "mobile context" is important: I'm currently working on a web application (client side is plain HTML+CSS+Javascript) whose core UI is intended for desktop use only, since it has almost 1000 forms, and it is too complex to be used on mobiles (Our App is a replacement for a legacy desktop app in many of our clients and it is mostly used inside Intranets).

But the same web App has ten related but independent subsystems (all sharing the same responsive loggin page) that where designed mostly to be used on mobile. Those are supposed to be used for managers, salesmen, warehouse men, customers, providers, etc, inside the same company throw the intranet or outside throw a publicly available IP, and they only show a subset of the whole functionality: only the forms what target users are going to need for their roles in the company.

In websites I absolutely support "Responsive Design" and forget about desktops vs mobile (our company's website delivers all functionality and content to all from and in tiny mobile screens to desktop).


You need to think beyond the design and rendering and ask what task is going to be completed in the mobile context and how. Consider that mobile users require tasks to be completed within seconds, or a minute or two at most, are subject to interruptions, and will operate in different environments. They can rely on device features too to complete their tasks. Nobody will spend 10 minutes entering data on a mobile device, IMO

So a CRM sales rep may use fast entry screens barcodes, cameras, audio and so on to quickly capture lead or opportunity information on a mobile device, whereas entering the same data on a desktop would take longer, even with 10 key skills.

Design for the user's essential tasks and device capability, in context. E.g.: http://www.oracle.com/webfolder/ux/applications/fusiongps/mobile/content/guidelines/introduction/index.htm#10


Not every website will have a consistent content and context for their mobile and desktop users. Proponents of the responsive design will say that this is feasible and logical, but looking at websites like Boston Global we can see that most of the content is of a similar layout and structure, and the use case is very straightforward. Advocates for the platform/device specific design will say that the best user experience comes from tailoring the visual and information content to the end user.

Keeping in mind that users will have some expectations and tolerances on desktop versus mobile, the key is to make the design that works well at the baseline level for the different display devices, and then work on providing support and features that work best for mobile or desktop.

The fact that we can still argue about whether we need to differentiate between mobile and desktop specific design would suggest that there is still a need (because if there is no need then we wouldn't be talking about it).

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