Killing Time Is The Killer App
By Dr. Jakob Nielsen, Mon Dec 04 00:00:00 GMT 2000

How do people use WAP? With difficulty. Poor design and information architecture are hampering the usability of WAP sites, and therefore their acceptance by consumers. But there is light at the end of the tunnel, says the Internet's foremost usability expert.

The extensive discussion about m-commerce, current WAP services, and the future of the mobile Internet sometimes overlooks one simple question: what is easy to use? People will not use something that is difficult. Our experience with standard Web sites has clearly shown that users leave any site that is complex or slow to use. Just because the user interface runs on a handheld is no reason to diminish the focus on usability. On the contrary, because mobile devices are more limited, the need for usability in service design increases substantially.

There are many different ways to study usability. Mostly we run user tests in the laboratory, but it is also very valuable to study users in their natural habitat. Field studies are particularly important for finding out how people use systems over a longer period than we can keep them captive in the lab. We recently ran a field study of WAP users in London. We gave 20 users a WAP phone and asked them to use it for a week and record their impressions in a diary. We also performed traditional usability tests with users at the beginning and end of the field study. The detailed report from the study can be downloaded from

We ran this study in London because of the advanced state of the United Kingdom's mobile phone market relative to the United States. The U.K.'s WAP services have been under development longer than those in the U.S. and were also more widely deployed at the time of our study.

We asked users to accomplish simple tasks with their WAP phones. As shown in the table, it was often much too slow for users to find answers to simple problems. Well-designed services were faster, but over-all there are too many WAP services with poor usability.

Here are some task times, in minutes:
Read world headlines (from built-in portal): 1.3
Retrieve The Guardian's headlines: 0.9
Check local weather forecast: 2.7
Read TV program listing: 2.6

Deja Vu

It's striking how much our findings from this WAP usability study in late 2000 resemble several Web usability studies we conducted in 1994 (the age of Mosaic). It's truly deja vu: Many of our conclusions are the same as those we reached at the dawn of the Web. Hopefully, mobility's evolution will follow that of the Web: When things got better in subsequent years (especially around 1997), many more users got onto the Web and commercial use exploded.

The usability of current WAP services is severely reduced because of a misguided use of design principles from previous media, especially principles of Web design. This situation is exactly equivalent to Web design problems in 1994, when many sites contained "brochureware" that followed design principles that worked great in print (say, big images) but didn't work in an interactive medium. One of our users came across a WAP service fro Excite that used four screens to present two screens' worth of material. Such lavish design may work well on the Web if users have a big-screen PC, but on a small-screen device, designers must boil each service down to its essence and show much less information.

Our users often faced unclear labels and menu choices written in special language invented by the WAP designer. NewSpeak was rampant in the Web's infancy, and many sites invented cute vocabulary for their services in a misguided attempt to brand their site with proprietary language. This didn't work. Users want no-brainer design that uses standard terms for standard features. The need for simple language is even stronger in WAP design, because there is no room to explain non-standard terminology with roll-over effects, icons, or captions.

Several WAP services that we tested were unnecessarily hard to use because of a mismatch between their information architecture and the users' tasks. For example, TV listings were organized by television network, meaning that you would have to go to several different parts of the service to find out what was on at 8 p.m. (one screen for BBC1, another screen for BBC2, and so on in an annoyingly slow sequence of screens).

Very precise task analysis will be necessary for WAP services to succeed. Unfortunately, task analysis is a black art as far as most people are concerned and it is the least appreciated part of usability engineering. The traditional Web also suffers from poor task analysis, with many sites structured according to how company management thinks rather than how users typically approach their tasks.

Although poor task support is a serious usability problem for a big-screen Web site, it is a usability catastrophe for a small-screen WAP service. With the big screen, users can see many more alternative options, and thus it is not so critical that designers pick exactly the right ones at each step. For WAP: Be right or be dead.

Don't Look Below the Fold

On several occasions, we observed users failing at tasks because they did not scroll their WAP screens to see content and menu options that were "below the fold" (i.e., not visible on the first full screen). Again, this exactly duplicates one of our main findings from the 1994 Web usability studies. Back then, very few users scrolled the Web pages, so navigation pages failed if any important options were invisible. In later Web studies, we observed that users had begun to scroll, and thus it is no longer a usability disaster to have a home page that scrolls over two or even three full PC screens.

It's possible that WAP will evolve in similar ways. In a few years, users may start to appreciate the need to scroll and decide to check out multiple screens before making their choice. We can only guess as to what will happen in the future, but our assessment is that scrolling will be less common in WAP navigation than in PC-based Web navigation. It is simply less pleasant to scroll through many small WAP screens than to peek at what's below the fold in Internet Explorer.

In the Web's infancy, outdated content and incomplete services were a major problem as companies launched sites without the necessary commitment to maintenance or professional editorial support. WAP is hitting that same wall. Users were often disappointed by newspaper sites that displayed the morning headlines late in the afternoon, sports sites that didn't have the scores of recent games, and services that provided sporadic, incomplete information rather than full listings of what users wanted. The Web still has many unprofessional sites that were apparently launched and forgotten about. But most big sites are now committed to frequent updates and comprehensive content. Let's hope that mobile Internet services get to this point as soon as possible.

It's not surprising that WAP users do not want to read a lot of text. After all, the screens have poor typography and it is painful to have to scroll through page after page of small snippets of text and try to piece them together in your mind. In several earlier studies, we also found that Web users don't want to read much on computer screens. Our typical advice is that when you write for the Web, you should cut an article's word count in half relative to what you might write for print. On WAP, brevity becomes even more important. Cut. The. Words.

One WAP usability finding that we have not seen on the Web was a lack of clear differentiation between services. As one of our users noted when comparing the Financial Times and The Guardian: In the real world, you will have trouble finding two more different newspapers. On WAP, however, you can't tell them apart. Web sites usually suffer from the opposite problem: They are much too different.

With WAP, the service's expressive power is severely reduced because of the need to squeeze everything into extremely short menus and present all content in ultra-short condensed versions. Service providers must cultivate a new appreciation for language and hire copywriters who can develop a distinct voice in a minimum word count. This will be the real way to distinguish WAP services.

So What Works?

Promising mobile Internet services seem to follow a bi-modal distribution with two dramatically contrasting approaches that both work well with users:
- Highly goal-driven services aimed at providing fast answers to specific problems. Examples include: "My flight was canceled; get me a new airline reservation" and "What's the weather?"
- Entertainment-focused services whose sole purpose is killing time. Examples include gossip, games, and sports services. Gossip is particularly suited for WAP because the content can be very brief and still be satisfying.

Mobile services must target users with immediate, context-directed content. General services like shopping are less likely to succeed in the mobile environment. Indeed, in our list of services bookmarked by users, shopping hardly figures at all; sports and entertainment are the two big categories.

Killing time is a perfect application for mobile devices because they are readily available when users are waiting around for something to happen. At the bus stop? Play a short game. In line for something? Read a paragraph of gossip. Stuck in traffic that doesn't move? Check the scores of your favorite teams.

Dr. Jakob Nielsen ( is a User Advocate specializing in Web usability and a principal of Nielsen Norman Group ( Nielsen's most recent book, "Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity" has about a quarter million copies in print in 11 languages. In its review, Business Week said that this book "should [...] be read by any executive with responsibility for managing online operations".

Nielsen's Alertbox column about Web usability has been published on the Internet since 1995 ( and currently has about 200,000 readers. Nielsen has been called "the guru of Web page usability" (The New York Times), "the smartest person on the Web" (ZDNet), "knows more about what makes Web sites work than anyone else on the planet" (Chicago Tribune), and "the next best thing to a true time machine" (USA Today). He holds 51 United States patents, mainly on ways to make the Internet easier to use.