Tag Archives: Design

Time to rethink website navigation systems

On January 6th, 2013, I outlined my thoughts on how I wanted to design websites that worked for both tablets and PCs.

I made the following observations;

  1. We need to start designing websites with tablets in mind. Displaying PC websites on the 10-inch iPad worked quite well. However, with the smaller iPad mini, we need to make more optimized websites.
  2. Desktop websites tend to be loaded with insane amounts of junk and redundant material. 90% of the content on the Asahi.com website, for example, is either a) advertisements, b) navigation, c) recommended links. The real content of the top page, which we would expect to be the headline news, is only 10% of the page.
  3. Because desktop websites come with so much junk, you would actually lose very little by removing it and making the page fit comfortably on the iPad mini.
  4. Looking at newspaper applications designed for the iPad, it becomes apparent that even the top-navigation bar is not really necessary. If you provide a button that summons up a page dedicated to navigation, you can dispense with even the most basic web navigation elements.

Today, working on an updated version of Ponzu, I am now absolutely sure that top-navigation can and often should be removed. With even the most basic web navigation scheme being cast under doubt, I am now of the impression that website navigation as a whole needs to be completely re-imagined, with inspiration for the new generation most likely to come from native mobile applications.

We’ll update this blog with our progress as it happens.

In the meantime, here’s an excellent write-up of traditional navigation designs and patterns that are common on current websites. Unfortunately, as you can easily see, the vast majority of these designs require the precision of a mouse cursor and are very, very unsuitable for an iPad mini.

“Jobs-to-be-done” in scientific conferences

Clayton Christensen often refers to “Jobs-to-be-done” as a way of thinking about innovation. “Jobs-to-be-done” is a concept that was brought forth by Bob Moesta and the example that is most often referred to is milkshake marketing.

In essence, “Jobs-to-be-done” means to focus on a product’s function and its job; to understand what job the customer wants to accomplish, and why they hired the product to help them do it. In contrast, traditional marketing is usually obsessed with product categories, customer categories, and competitors, etc. These are what 4P and 3C tells us to focus on, but they often steer us away from the job-to-be-done.

In this post, I want to look at the jobs-to-be-done for scientific conferences, what participants want to accomplish.

The way I see it, the job that conferences are hired to do are the following;

  1. Face-to-face discussions with your peers, especially with those whom you do not regularly communicate.
  2. Learn about other remotely related research (fields that you wouldn’t usually check up).
  3. Meet with old acquaintances.
  4. Training and encouragement for young researchers.

Conference systems other than Ponzu only address the second issue. They provide a way to search the abstracts and to schedule your time. Unfortunately, they tend to only have a primitive search interface which is useful only when you have a very good idea about which search keywords you should use. As such, their support for the jobs-to-be-done is very poor.

Ponzu was designed for the jobs above. Each of Ponzu’s features was envisioned as a way to assist either of the tasks.

We designed the “like” system to provide an initial connection which could bring together scientists who share a common interest, but have never met face-to-face. We have heard stories where researcher doing unrelated research have met and discussed after discovering each other through “likes”. The “like” system addresses the first job. In addition, getting “likes” is encouraging. We have heard stories of young researchers being delighted at receiving likes from renown scientists, and then sending emails to them.

Our search system uses Apache Solr as the backend, and as a result, our searches are ranked by relevancy. Furthermore, we provide excerpts of the text to assist discovery. More importantly, we list up all presentations by the same research group so that users can easily learn more about each author, and meet with them at the conference to discuss further. As a result of collaboration with DBCLS, we also display related presentations based on keyword data-mining. This empowers participants to complete the second job.

Ponzu provides private messaging. Additionally, at the MBSJ2012, we provided Yoruzemi (a BBS for nightly meet ups). These help with job number 3, meeting old acquaintances.

Other conference systems view conferences only from the perspective of a lone spectator. They consider conferences to be a vehicle for information transmission from the presenters to the the audience, similar to how books convey knowledge to readers. They borrow features from spectator-oriented media and websites, but do not understand the unique jobs that conferences help get done.

The difference between Ponzu and preceding conference systems is hence very conceptual and deep. The difference is not in the number of features. It is in how we view the role of scientific conferences in general and in our approach to the jobs-to-be-done.

Our future goals are to deepen our understanding of how conferences contribute to the advancement of science, and to design Ponzu to assist in these roles. We need to understand the jobs-to-get-done, and to get them done.

Designing for Teenagers

Jakob Nielsen just published a study on designing for teenagers (“Teenage Usability: Designing Teen-Targeted Websites”).

The great thing about doing a real survey is that it often refutes a lot of the stereotypes that we tend to throw around. In the context of Ponzu, the misleading stereotypes are;

  1. are supremely tech savvy,
  2. use smartphones for everything, and
  3. want everything to be social.

In fact, it turns out that task success rate is worse for teens mainly due to lack of patience, but also due to insufficient reading skills and less sophisticated research strategies.

Lack of patience also means that a slow website is a disaster for teens. Websites have to be fast.

Teens also want more control of social aspects and sharing information. Ponzu integrates social network features into the conference system, but we should be aware that even young people do not necessarily want to share information.

Another interesting finding is that teenagers dislike tiny font sizes as much as adults do.

My takeaways are;

  1. Don’t use small fonts except where small print is expected.
  2. Pay attention to navigation.
  3. Make the website fast, even when the network connection is bad (using local caching strategies).
  4. Don’t force sharing unless we really need to.

Thoughts about the future of viewing PC websites on mobile phones

While studying how iPhone and Android display PC websites on mobile phones (here and here) , I came to the conclusion that physical screen size doesn’t really matter that much; auto-resizing text based on complex software algorithms makes all the difference.

Since there is a large difference in how browsers auto-resize text, it would be unwise to rely on it for a conference system where mobile access is very important. Ideally, you should create mobile versions of all the relevant websites for the conference. If you do not have the resources for this, at least make sure that the websites look good on Android devices, because PC websites are more difficult to use on the default Android browsers. Checking with mobile Safari is insufficient because its software algorithms make up for your mistakes.

Looking into the future, FireFox and especially FireFox OS may change the situation. The current versions of FireFox on Android use auto-resizing very aggressively, and we can expect the low-end phones using FireFox OS (which will use small screens to cut costs) to do the same. These phones may make browsing PC websites on small screens quite bearable. 

If auto-resizing becomes commonplace and web designers can begin to rely on it, then the extra efforts to optimize websites for mobile will become less important. A single design will cover both PCs and smartphones.

Comparing PC website browsing on iPhone 5 and Galaxy Note 2: The iPhone 5 is actually better

In my previous post, I concluded that the Galaxy Nexus with a 4.65-inch screen did not provide a superior web browsing experience compared to the 4.0-inch iPhone 5. On the contrary, the iPhone 5 displayed larger fonts on the same pages, hence reading the content was more comfortable on despite a significantly smaller screen. This was largely due to automatic font-resizing on the iPhone’s Safari browser.

I also briefly mentioned the Galaxy Note 2, and suggested that even with its 5.5-inch display which is 38% larger in length, fonts on PC websites would not be displayed as large as the iPhone 5. Hence, the browsing experience might still be worse despite a much larger display.

I have now obtained some screenshots from the web (I myself do not own a Note 2) so we can compare with actual images.

Below I used Galaxy Note 2 screenshots from TechRadar. I took screenshots on my iPhone 5 from the same website, and adjusted the sizes so that they represent actual physical measurements (meaning that you can directly compare font sizes).

Showing the whole page

The screenshots below were from The Daily Mail website. When displaying the whole page, second level headers were barely legible on the iPhone 5’s retina display. Second level headers on the Galaxy Note 2 were also very small, so we expect them to be very difficult to read as well. Since in both devices, the only text that could comfortably be read was the top level headers, we think there is little difference here.

Galaxy Note 2 full 2013 01 25 19 48

Zooming up on text

The next screenshot is where we move to an article page and zoom in to the text. The navigation column on the right is moved out of the screen. This is the “reading” mode where readers will actually read the text of the article.

As we saw in the previous post, here again we see that the iPhone 5’s font size is actually larger than the Galaxy Note 2, despite the latter having a 38% larger screen. This is due to mobile Safari automatically resizing the text.

Adding the fact that the iPhone 5 has a 326ppi retina display compared to the 285ppi Galaxy Note 2, the readability of the larger text on the iPhone 5 is clearly superior to the Galaxy Note 2.

Galaxy Note 2 zoom in 2013 01 25 19 50


With actual screenshots from the Galaxy Note 2, we can again see that the iPhone 5 provides a superior web browsing experience.

This is pretty damning. As the TechRadar article stresses, browsing the web is THE strength of the Galaxy Note 2. It is where the huge screen makes its mark. We also know that browsing the Internet is the most popular smartphone/tablet activity. Unfortunately, the much smaller iPhone 5 beats the Note 2 in website readability with the advanced software in mobile Safari.

The Galaxy Note 2 is great for browsing if your benchmark is other Android phones. If you have a choice though, I recommend the iPhone.

Software, not the hardware, is what makes the difference.

Is a larger screen on smartphones beneficial for viewing PC websites?

In a previous post, I discussed design considerations to make “pinch to zoom” work well. This is very important when you want to show your PC website to smartphone users. I concluded that it is vitally important to keep the length of each row short, and that 50 letters per row is optimal.

In this post, I would like to investigate whether or not a larger screen like that on recent Android devices would help. Specifically, I would like to discuss whether the Galaxy Nexus with a 4.7 inch screen (W 2.28 x H 4.05 inches) provides a better viewing experience compared to the iPhone 5 with a 4.0 inch screen (W 1.96 x H 3.49 inches).

As described in more detail below, my conclusion is that due to software optimizations in mobile Safari, iPhone 5 (and to a lesser extent iPhone 4/4s) provide a better experience than the Galaxy Nexus. This is despite the Galaxy Nexus having a significantly larger display.

A similar conclusion was reached by Ben Bajarin of Tech.pinions in his blog post.

Safari auto-resizes text to make important stuff legible

In a “pinch to zoom” interface, it is vitally important that the user can recognize what part of the screen they should zoom into. This means that important headers and links should be large enough to be legible, even without zooming-in. We want to see if this is the case

In the following image, I have compared the nikkei.com front page on the iPhone 5 and Galaxy Nexus. The images are drawn to the same scale so that you can directly compare sizes.

As you can see, both smartphones display the headers of each article quite well (red arrows). These headers are both equally legible. The text is smaller on the iPhone and larger on the Galaxy Nexus, representative of the difference in screen width.

However when we look at the smaller headers/links which I highlighted with yellow arrows, the situation is reversed. On the iPhone 5, mobile Safari automatically enlarged the text to make them legible. However, Chrome on the Galaxy Nexus rendered them in propotion to the rest of the page and they are barely readable.

When you look at the text body, you realize that the lines are shorter on the iPhone 5. This is because mobile Safari again is automatically enlarging the font-size so that it would be legible. As a result, the body text is larger on mobile Safari compared to the Galaxy Nexus.

iPhone 5 does not increase text size universally. For articles that are not accompanied by large header text, iPhone 5 tends to treat them as unimportant and does not increase text size.

The end result is that despite the iPhone 5 having a significantly narrower screen, the text is actually larger and easier to read than on the Galaxy Nexus.

Nikkei com 2013 01 25 10 49

We can also see this in action on www.asahi.com. The iPhone 5 is significantly easier to read.

Www asahi com 2013 01 25 10 50

Font size in pinch-to-zoom view is larger on Safari

As a side-effect of font-resizing, the text is much larger and easier to read after the user has “pinch-to-zoom”ed. The following screen shots are on www.asahi.com after zooming in to the top news section. As a side note, zooming was easier on the iPhone 5 because mobile Safari has better auto-zoom level detection. Hence a double-tap takes you to the zoom level on the screenshot, whereas a double-tap on Chrome does not. With Chrome we had to do an actual “pinch-to-zoom” gesture, which is more cumbersome, to get to the zoom level on the screenshot.

As you can see, font sizes are significantly larger on the iPhone 5. This is due to the rows having less characters per line as a side-effect of the auto-text resizing I described in the previous section. The font-size on Chrome, although legible, is not ideal. Any website that has been optimized for mobile would use a much larger font.

Asahi com pinch to zoom 2013 01 25 10 50

This situation is very serious for text-heavy pages. As you can see in the following screenshots, the iPhone 5 screen is much much easier to read.

Asahi com 2013 01 25 11 33

On mobile optimized websites neither has an advantage

Mobile optimized websites are designed for narrow screens and assume that the user will scroll down to read more. Font sizes will be more-or-less the same regardless of screen size, hence the difference is only in how much a user has to scroll. Given the easiness of scrolling on smartphones, this is generally not much of an issue.

In the next screenshot from IT Media mobile, you can see that the Galaxy Nexus shows a bit more information at the bottom of the screen. Still, not enough is visible so even Nexus users will scroll down.

The font sizes are almost identical and easily legible.

ITMedia mobile 2013 01 25 10 50


Although Firefox is not the default browser on Android and we won’t use it to compare with the iPhone, Firefox has very interesting text-autoresizing and is worth mentioning here.

Simply put, Firefox is extremely aggressive with text-autoresizing. The resized text is very large and easily readable. I expect many people to find this very nice. 

The Mozilla organization is preparing FireFox OS for low-end smartphones. FireFox OS will probably use the same aggressive text-autoresizing. This is ideal for low-end smartphones which are likely to have smaller screens than high-end Android phones. Text will be easily legible despite small screens, and is likely to be much better than text on high-end Androids with large screens running Chrome.

The algorithm for resizing text on FireFox is described here.

Chrome Firefox headlines 2013 01 25 17 14

Chrome Firefox text 2013 01 25 17 15


Despite the Galaxy Nexus having a significantly larger screen than the iPhone 5 (4.6 inches vs 4.0 inches), viewing PC websites is actually much more comfortable on the iPhone. This is due to important software optimizations in mobile Safari.

If you are designing a PC website and you want it to also be usable on iPhones, you can be more relaxed about the recommendations that I gave on my previous post. You don’t have to be too picky about the maximum characters per line, because mobile Safari will do the work for you. However, if you want to make it usable on Android, then the burden is on you. The designer has to make sure that the line length is short enough to be easily legible on Android smartphones, and large screen sizes don’t help much.

On the other hand, if you are creating a mobile website, as long as you are adhering to the general guidelines for a mobile site, usability will be basically the same on both iPhones and large-screen Android phones. Large screens do not provide an advantage. Likewise, Android’s lack of optimization is no longer a disadvantage.

How this effects screen size trends

A recent trend in smartphones is the rise of the “phablet” category, namely the popularity of the Galaxy Note which is a smartphone with a 5.5 inch display. This screen provides 18% more width than the Galaxy Nexus.

As discussed above, screen size alone is not important. When we compare the Galaxy Note (simulated screenshot below) to the iPhone 5 for the body text, we actually see that the iPhone 5 still has larger text and better readability. In fact, in order to surpass the iPhone 5 in font size when reading PC websites, Android devices need to get up to 7-inches.

I suspect that the rise of “phablets” is a result of the lack of software optimization in Android browsers. The iPhone and mobile Safari can provide readability that surpasses “phablets” on much smaller screens.

Simulated galaxy note 2013 01 25 12 21

The larger view

Incremental feature improvements provide actual benefits only when the previous technology was insufficient. Large screens provide benefits to smartphone applications if and only if the current screen size is restricting usability, and the improvements are significant enough to overcome the limitation.

What this means is that applications that have been optimized for small smartphone screens will not receive significant benefits from an incrementally larger screen. This is the situation that we saw with mobile-optimized websites. A larger screen allows you to see a few more lines. However, since scrolling is so easy on smartphones, the benefits to usability are limited.

On the other hand, viewing PC websites that have not been optimized for mobile are a great opportunity to show off the benefits of a larger screen. Viewing PC websites is by far the most irritating activity on smartphones because the text is often too small to be legible, and scrolling horizontally to read as single line of text is truly annoying. It is these times when we wish we had a larger screen or a tablet.

Therefore, the benefits of a larger screen on smartphones should mainly be measured by how easy it is to browse PC websites. However, due to lack of text-resizing, large-screen Android smartphones actually provide a worse browsing experience compared to the iPhone. Without text-resizing, a screen size approaching 7-inches is required to display websites with the same font-size as the iPhone.

The situation is different with tablets. Because tablets like the iPad have fundamentally larger screens compared to smartphones, it is possible to provide a different user interface. Optimized applications have multi-paneled navigation systems, for example. Therefore with tablets, the issue is whether the screen size is large enough to house the different user interface or not.

In the eyes of most web designers, tablets at or below 7-inches do not have sufficient screen real-estate to accommodate multi-paneled navigation, whereas the iPad mini does. Many web designers give 7-inch tablets the smartphone version in their responsive designs. On the other hand, the iPad mini will get the same multi-paneled navigation as the iPad. In a nutshell, anything below 7-inches is a smartphone, and anything above 7.9-inches is a full tablet.

In conclusion;

  1. For optimized websites and applications, anything below 7-inches is basically the same. You get the smartphone experience. You only get a significantly better experience if you go to or above 7.9-inches (the iPad mini).
  2. For non-optimized websites, incremental increases in screen size can potentially benefit the user experience. However, the lack of automated resizing in Android browsers results in a worse experience than mobile Safari, despite a significant advantage in screen size.

Can pinch-zoom substitute for smartphone-optimized/tablet-optimized web sites?

NYTimes 4All smartphone and tablet browsers allow users to use the pinch-zoom gesture to zoom in on web pages. This allows web pages designed for PCs to be fully usable on small-screen devices since this gesture is extremely intuitive and fluid. Due to the ubiquity and simplicity of this gesture, it is almost as second-nature as scrolling.

However, websites differ in their usability with pinch-zoom. News sites which list articles in blocks (i.e. The New York Times) are very suited to pinch-zoom. You can zoom in to magnify the area that I put in a red box. When zoomed in the number of letters per row is about 30, which means that the letters will be quite big and easily legible, even on a smartphone screen.


MacsurferOn the other hand, web sites that simply use a list for headlines are not suited to pinch-zoom. (i.e. MacSurfer’s Headline News). Zooming in on the headlines would result in the red box. However even with zooming, the number of letters per row is more than 80. The fonts are too small to read easily on a smartphone, although tablets will be OK.


For pinch-zoom to work well on smartphones, less than 50 letters per line is optimal.

Iphone emailIn Apple’s mail app on the iPhone, a font size that give 40 letters per line is used for simple text messages. In Mobile Safari, the default font size is set to 16px which allows for about 50 letters per line when the viewport tag is set to device-width. The minimum font-size that one can read comfortably differs between individuals, we can safely assume that a size that gives 40-50 letters per line on an iPhone will be comfortably legible for most users.

Therefore for pinch-zoom to work well on smartphones, the number of letters per line in the zoomed box should be less than 50. If we cannot satisfy this, then pinch-zoom will not provide a good enough experience.


The MBSJ2012 website did not use a multicolumn layout, nor did it use a newspaper-like layout. Hence, there were very few pages where pinch-zoom would make sense.

However, it might be interesting to investigate designs with multiple columns or a newspaper-like layout. This could be especially helpful when we want to highlight exhibition activities. These might need pinch-zoom.

Using multi-columns for text (CSS columns)

“Anything from 45 to 75 characters is widely regarded as a satisfactory length of line for a single-column page set in a serifed text face in a text size. The 66-character line (counting both letters and spaces) is widely regarded as ideal. For multiple column work, a better average is 40 to 50 characters.”

from The Elements of Typographic Style Applied to the Web

In MBSJ2012, we used the CSS columns feature to display presentation abstracts in multiple columns. When the browser window width was 768px as on an iPad, the average number of 16px Arial font characters per line fit the multiple column recommendation perfectly.

On smartphones, we used single columns. The size again matched the recommendation on the low-end for the iPhone, and on the middle end for larger Android smartphones.

Even on 7-inch tablets like the Nexus 7, the number of characters barely missed the high end of the recommendation and was pretty close to being satisfactory.

Smartphone websites on 7-inch tablets aren’t too bad

As I wrote in my previous article [Supporting Android Tablets](https://code.castle104.com/?p=171), we have decided to direct all Android tablet users to the smartphone website. The reasons are both technical and design-based.

The problems with using a smartphone device on a 7-inch tablet were described by Apple’s Phil Schiller on the iPad mini introduction event (video below). Phil shows how bad native applications on the Nexus 7 are, mainly because they simply stretch the smartphone application. The result is that the screens are filled with empty white space with very little meaningful content.

However, when you test the MBSJ2012 website on a 7-inch tablet with the smartphone version being shown, there doesn’t seem to be any problem. The design looks natural, and works well.

We think that this is because conference programs are very text heavy. You don’t have many lists that have only a brief heading. On the contrary, we have lists of presentations which have the title, authors and affiliations; that’s a lot of text. It’s even enough text to comfortably fill up a 7-inch tablet screen. Actually, 7-inch tablets don’t really have too much space. 7-inch tablet browsers default to only 37 “m” characters per line, meaning that if you have more than that, you’re going to reach the end of the line. Conference programs won’t leave much white space for these devices.

Another factor is that the Android tablet native applications seem to have set the font size too small. Whereas Android browsers default to a sensible text size (which is very similar to the default text size on the iPhone and iPad mini), native applications seem to have an issue setting the font size correctly.

In conclusion, at least for 7-inch Android tablets, directing them to the smartphone website seems to be a good decision.

A design that respects the authors work

The previous designs for conference programs showed no respect for the hard work of the authors. Abstracts were treated simply as entries in a database. We strongly object to this and propose that conference programs should be designed with the same care as printed academic journals.

Example of bad design

  • Abstracts are treated as database fields.
  • All the font sizes and styles are the same. Important information (titles, number) should have a larger font size, while affiliations should be smaller (as is typical in a printed journal).
  • As discussed in “Multi-lingual support”, displaying both English and Japanese next to each other makes it harder for readers to quickly read the content and should be avoided.

2011 presentation

Ponzu design

Below is the design for MBSJ2012.

  • The design is based on top printed journals.
  • Font sizes, styles and colors are used to make each element easily identifiable.
  • Important information (title, number) is in larger font sizes.
  • A two column layout is used so that readers do not have to move their eyeballs long distances.

MBSJ2012 design 2


Historically very little effort was put in the design of conference programs. It is time for this to change.