Understanding the Mobile User

Richa Jain

There was a time when the only form of Internet access was through desktop computers. Today, most users access the Internet from multiple devices – office desktops, home laptops, smartphones and/or tablets. As a result, people are accessing the Internet anytime, anywhere. Businesses are trying to understand this always-on behavior and leverage it to better connect with their markets.

In the design world, the normal is still for designers to carry the desktop website user experience to smartphones, perhaps making it responsive. But mobile changes everything. Design decisions need to adapt and embrace the change.

"Why should we ever build a mobile product that caters to the same needs of the desktop user?" — John Caine, Chief Product Officer at Priceline

Let's take a look at some of the ways mobile internet usage is different.

Usage Locations

People use their smartphones on the go – while waiting for a friend, while on the train, at the dentist's office – just about anywhere. This is a stark contrast from the days where you had a reliable Internet connection at work, and perhaps a painfully slow dial up modem at home that you preferred not to use.

Today, a large portion of users have 3G and 4G Internet connectivity on the their smartphones, 24×7. This constant connectivity opened up new business models and ways of interaction. According to a study by Google and Nielsen, 77% of all mobile searches happen at home, or at work, where users are likely to have a PC available.

The study found that speed and convenience were the primary reasons for mobile searches undertaken at home or work, as compared to going to a computer and logging in. 83% of users preferred their mobile device.

Take away for designers – Pay special attention to the user experience of your mobile website or app. Make sure it's SEO friendly and viewers can quickly and easily find what they're looking for.

Usage Time

According to data from Priceline, 70% of their mobile hotel bookings are made the same-day or day-before arrival. Mobile travelers book most often after 5 pm and 43% of Priceline's Tonight-Only Deal users make their reservation while driving. That means their mobile bookings are mostly last minute searches, as people get closer to their destination. This matches Google & Nielson's findings that the majority of mobile searches occur in the afternoons and evenings – a massive 40% of mobile searches are between 6pm to midnight.

This would indicate that users spend more time on their mobile devices after work – for socializing, shopping, entertainment and other non-work tasks. The time suggests that this mobile access is likely to be under low light conditions.

Take away for designers – Pay special attention to the colors and contrast on your mobile designs, especially how they appear under low light conditions. Does the data above also indicate mobile designs can do with an extra bit of playfulness as compared to corporate looking, straight desktop designs?

User Engagement

Have you ever paid attention to your own smartphone usage patterns? When do you use it the most? How much attention do you pay to your mobile device? If you're like most people, you surf the Internet through your mobile, only when you need something. This is often while we're engaged in another task.

Mobile internet access is usually in short bursts of 'in between time' – while watching TV, while waiting in queue, while waiting for food, or on the bus. That means attention spans are short, way shorter than in the desktop world.

User engagement data from Google shows that mobile visitors spend only about one-fourth the time on websites as compared to desktop visitors, visit only about ⅓ the number of pages, and have 2x the bounce rate. That's a significant difference in engagement metrics.

Take away for designers – Going with a responsive design may not be the best solution. The design needs to leverage other techniques and usage modes to increase engagement for mobile users.

The Local Mobile Consumer

Smartphone users use their phone to check for nearby stores, hotels, restaurants, deals, hangouts, friends etc – to check who and what is around the corner. It's a completely new way of thinking and doing things that wasn't possible in desktop days. Mobile users seek out location specific information, while they're on the go.

What these numbers mean is that consumers are using their mobiles to perform targeted, intention specific local searches, that convert much better than other platforms. So a mobile user searching for restaurants, is more likely to look for one nearby and call for a reservation, or walk into the restaurant, than someone searching on desktop. The same holds for most other kinds of retail. This is a breakthrough for marketers and retailers and many are coming up with new ways to build on this location specific engagement.

For example, The Corcoran Group, a premier real estate firm, is leveraging this local search phenomenon by helping their mobile users with location specific information, on-the-go. They found that when looking up a home, buyers and renters were also looking for information on restaurants, shops and schools nearby. Corcoran leveraged their agents' extensive knowledge of the neighborhoods to build a comprehensive list of local tips and recommendations, and shared these with prospective buyers and renters over their mobile channels, even before the actual home buying or rental process began.

Take away for designers – Make an extra effort for your mobile users. Understanding their browsing and search patterns, even while away from your website, can provide key insights into serving them better. Find a way to work those into your mobile web design or app.

Showrooming – The Price Challenge

Instant access to the Internet has given rise to 'Showrooming', where shoppers visit brick and mortar retail stores to see and feel the product, but then buy online via desktop or mobile. While checking out a product at a physical store, customers can compare prices with other outlets and online retailers via their phone. Google has a detailed study on how in-store shoppers are using mobile devices. They found 80% of smartphone users use their phones for shopping research, and of that, 80% do this research in-store.

Take away for designers – Understand that in the retail space, customers' buying decisions are heavily influenced by their mobile searches and other mobile experiences, even while in-store. Look at ways to make their in-store mobile experience rewarding enough to convert to in-store sales, or make it super easy for them to convert online.


The mobile landscape has changed significantly over the last decade and continues to evolve. Both large and small businesses are trying to leverage the mobile experience to build customer engagement and conversions.

As designers, we need to understand the evolving mobile consumer and leverage this in our app and mobile web designs, preferably from day one. If you haven't yet worked out your mobile web strategy, here is some advice to get you started. Depending on your target audience, you may even want to consider a mobile first approach.

Have you ever worked the specifics of mobile user behavior into your designs? What worked for you and what didn't? Share with us in the comments below.