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Mobile-First Still Matters

Jamie Bourne

Interactive Designer, Forum One

“Mobile-first” became a major topic for websites when Google CEO, Eric Schmidt, popularized the idea in 2010 at the Mobile World Congress. Mobile-first can mean different things to different people: for developers, it may mean writing code for smaller viewports first with the goal of creating cleaner code; while for designers, it may mean starting with mobile designs with the goal of prioritizing its user experience. While it’s been over a decade since this idea was first introduced, mobile-first still matters today.  

Today, it is projected that nearly three-quarters (72.6%) of internet users will access the web solely via their smartphones by 2025—this is equivalent to nearly 3.7 billion people across the globe. Likely, most of this growth will come from China, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Pakistan. As the years pass, cell phones will remain an ever-growing way to access the internet. 

The genesis of the mobile-first approach

A mobile-first approach is often referred to as making a website “responsive.” Today, responsive design is part of nearly every web design project in some way; but, in 2011—just four years after the release of the first iPhone—the mobile-first approach was in its infancy. The mobile-first approach introduced a debate between graceful degradation (i.e., starting with the desktop and scaling down) and progressive enhancement (i.e., starting with mobile and scaling up).  A mobile-first approach was radical considering that up until then, websites had been exclusively designed for desktop machines, making graceful degradation the default for decades prior. 

At the time, there were also no clear mobile-first standards, so it was the wild west in terms of design. What a website would look like and how it would behave at smaller viewports (in this case, phones, and eventually, tablets) was often an afterthought. The result was content being removed or presented on an entirely different site for mobile-sized viewports. At the time, some sites would have a link to a separate site—usually called “mobile site”—at the bottom of the desktop site in which you could view the desktop site with lots of zooming. Those of you who clicked one of those links in the early 2010s may remember that this link provided a somewhat better experience; however, it was not a viable long-term solution.

Taking a mobile-first approach

In 2010, the director of design at Facebook, Kate Aronowitz, said, “We’re just now starting to get into mobile-first and then web second for a lot of our products. What we’re finding is that the designers on mobile are really embracing the constraints [and] that it’s actually teaching us a lot about how to design back to the desktop.” This speaks as much to the evolution of responsive design over the last decade as it does to the core of the concept itself.

Today, there remains a focus on not eliminating information, embracing constraints, and working efficiently—all of which inform innovative approaches to responsive design. As new types of digital media are added to the expanding list of potential web content, we must remain steadfast in our commitment to serving up an engaging user experience and ensuring we tell a cohesive story on any device, no matter the size. The benefits of a mobile-first approach include: 

  • Increasing your reach: As the market will only continue to grow, you have the opportunity to grow along with it through engaging mobile experiences.
  • Driving traffic to your site: Google predominantly uses the mobile version of a website’s content for indexing and ranking and prioritizes page load speed as a key metric of search engine optimization (SEO). This means you could seriously increase where you rank in search results by ensuring a good mobile experience.
  • Sharpening your content strategy: Because you have to prioritize what content is shown first on your mobile site, you’ll challenge yourself to provide information that users are looking for and that helps better convey your messaging.
  • Being a leader in digital innovation: A mobile-first approach leaves room for you to build on new mobile device capabilities as they become available.

How to determine your mobile-first level of effort

In reality, resource constraints often result in a mobile-first approach turning into a “mobile-only” approach or veering to the other end of the spectrum of a “desktop-only” approach. That said, even if your site is predominantly accessed via desktop, it is crucial to prioritize mobile. The level of effort you put into mobile design and development will depend on a number of variables: 

  • Your existing mobile audience: If your next website is primarily for users in an area where desktop usage is rare or your existing site has significant mobile traffic, then you should probably lean towards the progressive enhancement approach. If you are often reaching a specific demographic that is likely to use their phones as their primary way to access the internet, you need to optimize the experience or you could lose this audience altogether.
  • Your audience growth targets: If you’re trying to grow your audience with a specific age group, part of the world, or other demographic that research shows typically uses a  phone to access the internet, you should think about your approach to mobile. Most importantly, you should consider the mobile experience in tandem with the desktop to ensure the mobile and desktop experiences are equally compelling.
  • How your content is used: Many sites provide content that can, and should, be accessed while away from a desktop. If there is any scenario that requires your audience to access information about your organization while from their home or office or if your content lends itself to aiding your users in taking action or finding content away from their desks, then it is essential to take a mobile-first approach.

Ultimately, you should ground your approach in what you want to achieve and how you can best reach your key audiences. Technology is constantly on the move and best practices will continue to shift for everything digital, but all-in-all, considering a mobile-first approach today is still relevant and still worth the effort. 

Want more? Mobile-first resources 

Written By

Jamie Bourne

Interactive Designer, Forum One

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