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Mobile First and the Power of Mobile Computing

| 7 min read

Given that you will need to design (or at least accommodate) apps and websites for more than one device type today; where do you start? Do you begin with the desktop experience and scale down? Or do you begin with the smartphone and then scale up? The concept of “mobile first” suggests that you might want to begin with the smartphone.

The very first iPhone was released on June 29th, 2007. Up until then using internet on a mobile phone had been a complete PITA. Screens weren’t very accommodating of an internet experience; the telecoms world had tried (and for the most part failed) to offer low data alternatives to the web (WAP – wireless application protocol – was a complete disaster which promised “the Internet” and delivered text only, ultra-limited websites instead).

Then Apple delivered the iPhone and suddenly a real Internet experience became available. By 2015, more than a billion people owned and used smartphones to connect to the internet. Mobile usage has become an ubiquitous part of life in all corners of the globe. You can now buy a smartphone for less than $20 (in Thailand, for example, a basic smartphone with a SIM card retails for $18).

Author/Copyright holder: Taylor Shomaker. Copyright terms and licence: Public Domain.

That means the question of whether to develop for the mobile or desktop platform and then scale your applications/websites accordingly is even more critical than ever before.

What is Mobile First?

Mobile first, is the concept that you should design for the mobile platform first and then scale the experience up to other platforms. It was proposed by Luke Wroblewski, the internationally recognized product leader who is now a Product Director at Google, back in November of 2009.

He offered three reasons for designing for mobile first and we’ve amended these slightly below and brought them up to date.

Mobile has Exploded

Back when Luke wrote his piece, mobile was exploding. Today, it has exploded. Billions use mobile Internet. In developing nations, in particular, the only internet connection that many people have is the one that comes with their smartphone. Even in the developed world more than 50% of online interactions are carried out with smartphones.

Desktop and laptop markets have shrunk and while the tablet market appears to have stabilized – there are more tablets and smartphones sold each year than traditional internet access platforms.

Mobile Forces You to Focus

Screen sizes and resolutions have come on in leaps and bounds since Luke first posited mobile first. Nevertheless, there are many old smartphones still in use and ultra-cheap smartphones being released in the developing world also have serious screen limitations.

That means you still need to focus on the most important actions and tasks for your users. You need to ensure content is minimal and delivered by priority to the user.

Author/Copyright holder: Tvaughan1. Copyright terms and licence: Public Domain.

There’s much more room on a desktop screen and you can afford to add in extraneous clutter there and extra features but smartphones don’t give you that luxury. The user-experience on smartphones is also determined by how they are used – on the move and in short, sharp bursts of activity which is very different from sitting at a desk and browsing for hours on end.

Mobile Offers New Capabilities

On the desktop, the Internet is the standard way of interacting with most businesses but in the mobile landscape the app is king.

That gives design and development teams brand new capabilities to deliver content in new and exciting ways. Then of course, there’s all that built in functionality on a smartphone that doesn’t exist (and wouldn’t be very useful) on a desktop. GPS, accelerometers, pedometers, new input devices (touchscreens, gesture controls, eye tracking), etc.

The mobile app experience can be very different from the one delivered on the desktop. The former allows you to tap into a whole new world of inputs and functions – the latter allows you to deliver larger more complex experiences.

Author/Copyright holder: Pixabay. Copyright terms and licence: Free to Use.

Designing with mobile first as a principle lets you focus on the power of the mobile computing platforms available rather than limiting you to a “miniature desktop experience”.

A Note of Caution

While mobile first can be an excellent strategy – it is, of course, important to do your research first. There are applications, particularly in the enterprise environment, where mobile is a minor secondary concern compared to the desktop.

Mobile isn’t the right platform for every product and you need to be certain that “mobile first” is right for your user base before you pursue it as your key strategy for development and design.

The Take Away

Mobile first is a design strategy that understands the importance of the mobile web and the dominance of smartphone platforms in the global market place. It recognizes that mobile screens are different from desktops and that mobile offers enhanced functionality in many cases compared to the desktop. It should be used when your user research suggests that the majority of your customers are expecting mobile services and they can be delivered in a meaningful way.


Read Luke’s original proposition for “Mobile First” on his blog.

Find out more about Luke and his credentials and background.

Hero Image: Author/Copyright holder: photoshop tutorial. Copyright terms and licence: Fair Use.

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