The Art of UX: Rise of the Mobile Web Browser

Blog / Sean Hardies

Today’s post is the first in an ongoing series we’re calling ‘The Art of UX.’ In case you’re not familiar what we’re talking about, UX refers to ‘User Experience Design.’ Based on Wikipedia’s definition, it means: “the process of enhancing user satisfaction with a product by improving the usability, accessibility, and pleasure provided in the interaction with the product.” This is a pretty straightforward definition, if a little cryptic. It doesn’t quite cover the full spectrum of what UX involves, but for our purposes it will suffice.

So, the definition broadly fits the bill. We’re talking about designing and testing the interaction between a user and a software application or website. Looking for a firsthand example of what UX signifies? Search no further than your smartphone. It has captured most of the functionality of a desktop/laptop and synthesized it in a form factor that fits in your pocket. Think about it: in the span of just a few years, we went from being glued to screens measuring 1-2 feet in diameter, all the way down to displays that span only 3 ½  - 5 inches, with none of the traditional inputs of a desktop or laptop. You’ve probably heard this repeatedly since the original iPhone was released, but it’s a remarkable change. Truth be told, while many like to think of the iPhone as the first smartphone, it wasn’t the first product that attempted to optimize the web for mobile phones. Microsoft, Sony, Palm (remember the PalmPilot?), Nokia, HTC, and Blackberry had already covered this ground — but with decidedly mediocre results.

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Blackberry Bold

The Blackberry Bold, released in late 2008

Yikes. Aside from its mobile web *ahem* experience, the Blackberry Bold was actually a well-received smartphone when it was released; however, it’s pretty clear that the format as a whole wasn’t long for this world. Keep in mind, by this point the web had just begun to catch up to smartphone and new multi-touch technology — but can you imagine using an interface like this in the app-driven universe of today? Not so much! I don’t intend to gush about Apple products, but we’re going to use Safari (yes, the web browser) as an early example of good mobile UX; it’s one of the things Apple did so well when it released the original iPhone.

With its refined touch-based interface, Apple’s smartphone reimagined the way people interact with mobile devices. The iPhone made things intuitive. Users never needed a stylus and didn’t encounter a steep learning curve or overly complex button scheme. Much of its functionality was easy to learn — and you didn’t have to worry about breaking anything in the process. Early mobile versions of Safari on the iPhone received criticism for slow site rendering and overall speed, but with the introduction of 3G networks and optimized versions of the app, this was improved. And the interface itself? Super simple to use, with touch navigation elements that actually made sense to let you browse, and more importantly, interact with the web quite similarly to how you would on desktop.

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Overall, the app was functional, easy on the eyes, and definitely simple to use. So how did mobile Safari’s UX on the iPhone actually play out in the smartphone market? A survey from Comscore about 6 months after the first iPhone dropped showed some remarkable findings:

“The results, from a January survey of more than 10,000 adults, are somewhat dramatic. 84.8 percent of iPhone users report accessing news and information from the hand-held device. That compares to 13.1 percent of the overall mobile phone market and 58.2 percent of total smartphone owners . . .

The study found that 58.6 percent of iPhone users visited a search engine on their phones, compared with 37 percent of smartphone users in general and a scant 6.1 percent of mobile phone users.

The market for mobile video once seemed like a nonstarter in the United States. Well, 30.9 percent of iPhone users have tuned into mobile TV or a video clip from their phone, more than double the percentage that have watched on a smartphone.”

[source: New York Times]

Those are some pretty impressive stats, less than one year into its release. But how, you ask, could Safari really responsible for this kind of shift in consumer behavior? Considering alternative browser options on Apple’s brand-new App Store didn’t launch until July 10th of 2008, which is months after this study, it almost certainly did. Users found the experience more enjoyable and accessible than using browsers on other smartphones — and this is before actual web technology and design aesthetics started changing to accommodate the uptick in mobile activity.

So which app design/browser philosophy played the long game and won? Here’s a screenshot of Safari on iOS 10 nearly ten years later (note: we chose to render the desktop version of the New York Times for this image).

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Other than replacing the new tab button with a share icon and removing the secondary Google search bar, little on the surface has changed. From a design standpoint, navigation icons on the bottom of the display have been flattened and reduced in prominence. Newer versions of iOS/Safari also perform much better with multi-tab browsing and offer forward and backwards navigation via swipe. Obviously, with 10 iOS versions from iPhone 1 to 7, there are differences under the hood, but fundamentally the experience is pretty familiar.

Near the end of 2008, just over a year after the first iPhone had been released — Blackberry claimed 53.6% of the overall smartphone market in the U.S. That figure is now well below 1%. In terms of browser adoption, Chrome is the current goliath on all platforms, with 35.8% of the mobile market, including Android and iOS platforms. Apple’s Safari holds 22.55% of the pie. And Blackberry browser market share? It claims a measly .61%, of the market. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

Obviously, user experience on mobile applications has an enormous impact on how customers decide to adopt hardware for consuming content. In our next segment of ‘The Art of UX’ we’ll take a look at how web tech and design have responded to the rise of smartphone and tablet platforms.