Mobile first? No, users first.

Woman using mobile device in lobby, Credit: Flickr Creative Commons user kmorrow

The concept of “mobile first” in web design has become somewhat of a buzzword in the interactive industry. It’s on track to quickly become the next “Web 2.0″ term we all despise hearing fall from the lips of almost-techie types, over-trying to earn street cred. But what’s the meat of the term? What does it mean and how does it affect your business? As much as we creatives get spindly hairs with cliche labels, the philosophy of starting with mobile is grounded in data and not merely a shiny word pair. The “mobile” prefix is slightly misleading, but we’ll get to that.

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To be clear, the term “mobile first” was originally “mobile first, web second” with the intent of punctuating the desktop not be forgotten. For brevity, that context has been shucked, but it is important to recognize the “mobile first” philosophy is not advocating the discard of the desktop—rather that each has their place and that mobile should not be an afterthought. The crux of this assumption is that for businesses who existed prior to the mobile movement, mobile is and will always be second until all touchpoints are reevaluated collectively and objectively—in the grand perspective of your digital brand.

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The “mobile first” movement advocates that by designing your content, functionality, and user interactions around variable mobile devices first, you tap into inherent benefits with regards to targeting your business goals, maximizing innovation in your marketplace, and ultimately opening market opportunities previously unseen by your competition. Unfortunately, the latter benefits are limited-time offers for early adopters, as mobile access is already becoming a requirement to compete.

Man using mobile device in flight deck, Credit: Flickr Creative Commons user mike_miley

In 2012, smartphone use is expected to eclipse PCs (shipments crossed in 2010), with mobile power users tripling to 1 billion by the new year. That mobile monster is projected to reach 10 billion active consumers by 2020, continuing to overshadow diminishing desktop users by 10x. Beyond numbers of people, Facebook notes their mobile users are twice as active as non-mobile users. We use our mobile devices everywhere, including in the restroom and underwater. The numbers are increasingly equalizing across home, work, waiting in lines, and during miscellaneous times. In fact, we see users using their mobile devices WHILE using their desktop devices, because users like myself have segmented tasks into those preferred on mobile versus desktop (even if both can accomplish the same task).

Mobile devices focus the message.

Even with these astronomical shifts, however, the most fascinating aspect of mobile device adoption is the tapping into markets previously untouched by the desktop market. Pinterest captured the usership from “normal” people long before being known by the technologically elite because it chose tablets as its native environment and magazine-reading, checkbook-holders as its targeted user base.

My mother-in-law, for example, was always the metaphor I used for debating the value of the iPad with other techies. “Why do I need an iPad when my other devices already do everything it does?” My reply was that the iPad wasn’t for you. It was for my mother-in-law, toddlers, and sometimes even pets. It was designed for people who had never been online before and for whom the concept of artificial input devices like keyboards, mice, and trackpads were both foreign and intimidating hurdles to confront. The iPad, as with other touch devices, enable a user direct manipulation of content and objects with the input devices they already know how to use skillfully—their eyes and hands. Interactions are guessable and predictable. Content becomes the UI, without the need for non-content cruft like zoom buttons or scrollbars.

Bill Buxton, principal researcher at Microsoft, said it best:

[The Natural User Interface] exploits skills that we have acquired through a lifetime of living in the world.

Baby reading storybook on mobile device, Credit: Flickr Creative Commons user hams-caserotti

In fact, even the concept of “mobile” is being shattered by devices like Google’s Project Glass where a pair of sunglasses can be used for contextual interactions with the world around you, or Samsung’s Smart Windows demonstrated at this year’s CES expo, allowing other invisible surfaces like car windows to supplement physical signage.

Mobile devices tap into the essentials.

Okay, so this is where the car screeches to a halt and you exclaim, “Whoa, whoa, whoa! Did we just take a turn? That’s not a handheld device.” You might even ask how you can begin to think about those types of hypothetical products in your business. This is where the term “mobile first” rides the line between a great concept and one that shouldn’t be taken literally. At its core, the “mobile first” philosophy is instead a method we creatives, strategists, and technologists use to get back to our “good design 101″ as Luke Wroblewski termed it. The “mobile first” approach is merely asking us to stop assuming we need “a website”, “an app”, or “a hammer” and to return to first determining what matters most to our customers, our users, our administrators, and our businesses. Using mobile devices as a flag-carrier, their seemingly limiting screen size helps you to assess the most important pieces of our digital products as they relate to each device. They are simply the lowest limbo bar, because the open playground of designing for the desktop environment has allowed us to overlook that homework assignment and to inundate our audiences with mud.

The ever-witty XKCD visualized this problem:

Designing for “mobile first” is a thought process appropriate for all, even if specifically building for mobile devices is only appropriate for most/many companies. Instead, your digital brand should be about integrated products and not one environment or another. In that way, a “mobile first” approach is just as valuable when starting with a desktop (or a car window for that matter), and addresses the issue jabbed at by the above comic. For that, I’d caution against literally following in Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt’s footsteps by announcing your decision to design all of your products for mobile first, but to instead reflect on his decree that “we have a role now to inform, to educate through all these devices.” Make sure your developers and your marketers don’t want device XYZ more than your users do.

Where does “mobile first” fit in?

When you determine which mobile platforms are appropriate for you, evaluate each of them in the context of your larger digital brand. Keep in mind:

  • Mobile devices occupy leisure time as well as productive time. Use the “whole person” concept and decide if any gaming, social communication, educational, or other methods may be employed to generate brand loyalty and advocacy.
  • Mobile devices tend to be inherently personal. Unlike a desktop device that may be shared among a family, specific devices with specific purposes form anthropomorphic bonds with their owners. Utilize that by soliciting two-way brand communication and engaging your users rather than selling to them.
  • Mobile devices are further down the figurative sales funnel. If your mobile phone user is looking up reviews on your product, chances are they are in a store and deciding if they want to put it in their cart or not—unlike a volume of desktop users who are just window shopping in their underwear. Don’t clutter those critical decision-points with anything that would inhibit action.
  • New devices may offer market innovation opportunities as a means of competitive differentiation. Keep up with the Joneses, but be on the lookout for uncharted devices and technologies that solve real-world problems.
  • Your power users are weighting the mobile boat more by the day. Enable them to do more on a mobile product and don’t assume your desktop website has to be the bigger and more complete application. Map each touchpoint to its own natural tasks.

Feel free to mention “mobile first” in your next RFP, but embrace its philosophy before name-dropping devices. 2020 is just around the corner and designing for the iPhone will be the next designing for the desktop sooner than we can blink. If you look to your audiences and respond to specific needs, you’ll always come out ahead.

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Comments
  • Firstly, I completely agree that Users First should be the overall objective – the first stage in any project is to decide who your target demographic is and how you need to present information to them.

    I have always believed Mobile First to be a practical development workflow approach, not an overall project approach.

    For example, when building web sites, it is often (but not always) more efficient to develop for mobile devices first and build design and functionality on top of this for desktops etc.

  • Nice article with several good points. I especially agree with your point about “The “mobile first” approach is merely asking us to stop assuming we need “a website”, “an app”, or “a hammer” and to return to first determining what matters most to our customers, our users, our administrators, and our businesses.” You do need to start with understanding the needs of your customers and users in order to then determine the right experience and which mobile solutions will best enable you to deliver it.

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ADG Creative is a strategic communications firm specializing in branding, interactive, learning and gaming, and software development. We combine process, experience and extraordinary creative talent to tell our customers' stories in unique, memorable and usually unexpected ways, leveraging both conventional and new media platforms.