Mobile vs. desktop: Are you optimizing both experiences?


smartphone-mobile-computer-ss-1920In March of 2015, the number of mobile-only users overtook desktop users, according to ComScore. This is a trend that will only become more pronounced over the next 10 years, as both business and personal users shift away from being tethered to desks and instead choose to access the internet any time from anywhere.

Tech giant Intel (disclosure: client) recently announced that it was shifting its focus away from PCs and onto enterprise business needs (servers) and mobile-enabled technologies, or the Internet of Things (IoT). This doesn’t mean the death of PCs and laptops is upon us, but it does signify that for those creating online experiences, more thought needs to be put into the differences between the desktop and mobile experiences.

While many companies over the last several years have invested in mobile experiences for their customers, they have taken a fairly narrow approach to creating the applications or responsive designs. What this means is that while the navigation, text, graphics and download speeds have been optimized for smartphones and tablets, the overall experience, user needs and content have not been similarly thought through.

This article will address the similarities and differences between the desktop and mobile experiences, along with some prescriptive ways to take advantage of both.


A lot of time is spent looking at the differences between desktop and mobile experiences, but it’s worth noting there are quite a few areas that the two have in common:

• Good user interfaces (UI) win. Have you ever been on a website, whether mobile or desktop, that’s hard to read? Or the navigation makes it hard to accomplish what you set out to do? We all have at some point in our browsing experience, and it’s a direct result of a poorly thought-out user interface.

While a bad desktop user experience can sometimes be a little more forgivable, on both platforms, this leads to higher bounce rates, less time spent on site and lower likelihood that customers can and will complete the task we want them to.

• Researching and digesting content. There are obvious trade-offs when it comes to researching and digesting content on desktop versus mobile devices. It’s much harder to read on one’s laptop on a crowded train or plane than with a tablet. It’s also less enjoyable to read a book on a phone.

But most publishers today have figured out how to deliver reasonably good experiences on all types of devices. And research tools like Yelp, Google or Kayak have made it pretty straightforward to find what you want, when you want.

• Email. While there are definitely different benefits to reading and writing email on a PC or a laptop versus a tablet or phone, people have become pretty facile at both. And in many cases, people use both experiences to their advantage (Mobile for quick perusal and responses to urgent emails and desktop for digesting or crafting lengthier emails).

• Photo browsing/editing. Taking photos or videos is still much easier to do on a mobile device than on a laptop or PC, but browsing, and even editing, are relatively easy to do on both formats now. In fact, one might argue that it’s easier for the novice to edit photos on a mobile device with built-in capabilities in applications like Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook than on the desktop.

However, it will be a while before creative types choose their smartphones for deep-dive Photoshop editing over their MacBooks.


While there are obvious differences between desktop and mobile experiences, some matter more than others in delivering the optimal experience to customers. Here are a few differences that are critical when thinking about the overall user experience (UX):

• Real estate. In a desktop world, page real estate is rarely an issue, whether the user is tracking supply chain activities, scrolling through Facebook or researching which car to lease. Although I personally find that I am more facile with Facebook on my phone than on my desktop (too many choices and less intuitive placement of features).

On a phone, less real estate means different choices, including more compact navigation, different graphic layouts, bigger type and less text.

• Location. Although more desktop sites are now asking users if they can “access their location,” the means for tracking a user’s whereabouts are much less precise than on a mobile device, which usually knows where a person is in the world down to a five- to 10-meter radius.

Desktops will continue to get better at this as IP addresses provide more precise locations, but mobile users are increasingly reliant on their devices knowing where they are and leveraging that to help them with smarter searches, photo-tagging capabilities, directions and even weather alerts.

• Photo/video capabilities. In the “Similarities” bucket, I discussed the fact that browsing and editing photos on a desktop/laptop and a mobile device was not radically different (at least at a surface level). However, taking photos and videos with a mobile device is much easier than in a desktop environment, and technologies like Periscope (Twitter) and Facebook Live are now enabling true broadcast capabilities.

As smartphone and tablet cameras catch up with the megapixels offered by high-end digital cameras, more and more photos and videos are being captured every day, allowing more people (and businesses) to become their own media outlets.

• Push notifications. Alerts on our PCs and laptops have been around for dozens of years. And while those aren’t going away any time soon, they don’t have the same impact (or messaging opportunity) as push notifications on a phone or tablet.

I explored this topic a little over a year ago, when I asked if push notifications could eventually replace emails. (I think the answer is no, but we will see a greater bifurcation in how we use both over the next few years).

• Portability. File this under “no duh,” but this is one of the reasons mobile-only usage has overtaken desktop usage. At the end of the day, many of us have our smartphones (and maybe even our tablets) with us everywhere we go.

With a laptop, we gained more mobility than we used to have with the PCs that sat in our offices, but even then, we wouldn’t carry our laptops with us to the beach, up the slopes, or even to our kids’ soccer games.

As a marketer, what can you do?

One of the things I’ve thought a lot about recently is that I need to be careful when I talk about mobile and location-based technologies with customers, because my enthusiasm for mobile might be construed as a discredit to the PC/laptop world. And while the latter is clearly dying a slow death, we still have a long way to go before we see the last of the larger-format computing devices.

To that end, as marketers, we don’t need to look at mobile versus desktop being an “or,” but rather an “and.” What is critical is to ensure that we are providing the best possible outcomes for our customers as they navigate their omnichannel experiences.

Here are five areas marketers can and should focus on as they think through these experiences:

1. A good UX starts with marketers asking the question, “What does my customer want to do?” My friend (and former head of social/mobile at McDonald’s), Rick Wion, told me that customers using their mobile app fell into two primary categories: a) job applicants who didn’t have a PC and wanted to fill out an application online; and b) parents with young children who wanted to find a location with a jungle gym on premise.

While I’m sure those two activities take place on the desktop version of McDonald’s site, they may rank far below other use cases like finding nutritional information and downloading coupons.

2. As I highlighted above, even if customers can do a task like email equally well on desktops and mobile devices, leveraging the benefits of each environment can be a huge win.

Desktops are great for more intensive tasks that require heavy-duty editing, reading, writing and processing, while mobile is better for real time, digesting and capturing. Are you creating the best experience on both for your customers?

3. Have you mapped out your customer journey? Very often, your customers will likely use more than one device as they consider buying a product or service from you. Leverage these so that the experience you create across mobile and desktop works in a complementary fashion.

As an example, if you know customers are on their mobile phone and researching a car, you may want to offer to email them a link to a more in-depth report from Consumer Reports that wouldn’t be easy to digest from their phone. Or if you know it’s easier to scan a barcode with their phone versus their desktop, ask them in an email if they would like to SMS a link to their mobile device for later usage.

4. Take into account which demographics prefer which devices, but don’t assume that always holds true. For instance, it’s always assumed that Millennials dislike email and desktop environments and prefer to use smartphones and social apps like Snapchat and Instagram. While this can be a good starting place, prove this true by looking at your web stats, surveying your customers, or better yet, watching their behavior over time and adapting how you interact with them.

5. Keep abreast of evolving trends. I remember 15 years ago when I was working at Fidelity Investments, we had a “Chief Mobile Officer” who would tell me every year that “this is the year of mobile.” He wasn’t incorrect, because every year, mobile became a little more important.

But what you could do then versus now is night and day. And while that might be obvious, think of how much smartphones have evolved just over the last three to four years — new hardware, more functionality, greater processing power.

As a fellow marketer, I know just how hard it is to add “one more thing” to think about when it comes to creating digital experiences for our customers. But no longer is it enough to just offer a responsive experience in mobile — or to eschew the importance of a desktop experience for the sake of mobile. Today, we live in a world where both are critical, and if we map the usage to our customers’ journeys and needs, everybody wins.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.

About The Author

Aaron Strout is Chief Marketing Officer at integrated marketing and communications firm, W2O Group. During his tenure with the company, he has served as President of WCG and head of W2O’s technology practice. Aaron has 20 plus years of social media, mobile, online marketing and advertising experience, with a strong background in integrated marketing. Prior to joining W2O, Aaron spent time as the CMO of Powered Inc. (now part of Dachis Group), VP of social media at online community provider, Mzinga, and as director of digital marketing at Fidelity Investments. Aaron is the co-author of Location Based Marketing for Dummies (Wiley) and writes a monthly mobile/location-based marketing column on He also recently launched the What 2 Know podcast (iTunes) which features industry leaders talking about innovation and best practices.



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