Mobile First: Our Design Philosophy That Puts People First

Just curious: are you reading this blog post on your phone? If you’re one of the two-thirds of U.S. adults who own a smartphone, the odds are increasingly good your answer is yes. What about shopping? Reading the news? Looking for an easy dinner recipe? Do you more frequently do those things now on a standard desktop or laptop, or on the phone?

The way people use the Web is changing. Our phones are becoming ubiquitous, constantly available, offering convenient connection to a whole world of information, resources, and diversions at our fingertips. When I joined Acumium, one of the initiatives with which I was tasked was to help define and communicate an official change in our design and development philosophy to “mobile first” because we recognize this shift in how people use the Web.

What does “Mobile First” mean?

Very simply, from a design standpoint, adopting a mobile first strategy means we start with the design of the most restrictive mobile experience first and accommodate the most essential goals. We then move on to larger screens and add functionality as we have access to more real estate. It’s one interpretation of a technique called “progressive enhancement.”

From a technical standpoint, since mobile users have little tolerance for performance lags, it means we write code and use resources that keep the mobile experience as lean and performant as possible, and flexible in the face of the changing device landscape (we see you, smartwatches).

Why mobile first?

Look at almost any stats and the story is dependably consistent: mobile usage is steadily rising. By some measurements, “exploding” might be a better descriptor. Here are some quick stats from Mobiforge and Altimeter Group (from 2014), and Pew Research Group (from 2015) that tell this story pretty well:

  • There are 2.1 billion mobile web users in the world
  • In the U.S., 25 percent of mobile web users are mobile only, meaning they don’t ever, or very rarely, also use a desktop, laptop or tablet to access the web. In other nations, that number is significantly higher (e.g. 70 percent in Egypt, 59 percent in India)
  • Mobile platforms account for 60 percent of total time spent on digital media
  • Customers are increasingly buying on mobile, with 25 percent of all online purchases converting on a mobile device
  • 56 percent of all time spent on U.S. online retail occurs on a mobile device
  • The U.S. is a multi-platform majority, meaning the majority of digital customers use both desktop and mobile devices every month
  • 7 percent of U.S. smartphone users are “smartphone-dependent,” meaning they access the internet exclusively using their phones
  • 46 percent of us say our smartphones are something we “couldn’t live without”

Significant benefits to design and user experience

Beyond the stats, we find mobile first offers significant benefits to the design process. Designing for the smallest screens first is proving to be one of the best things we can do for the overall user experience.

Before mobile first was a more common design approach, website design was traditionally done assuming a desktop viewport, which offers a luxury of onscreen real estate and often speedier performance. When a project had to accommodate a mobile view, the designer would have to rearrange and strip things out in the designs for the smaller viewports, often leading to a substandard and awkwardly shoehorned experience.

When you take a mobile first approach, however, the inherent constraints on both performance and screen real estate force an intense level of focus–and sometimes some challenging decisions–around what elements you put on the page. It ultimately strips away the noise, and leaves you with a goal-oriented and elegant experience that allows users to quickly accomplish their goals. And that’s what good UX is all about.

The benefits don’t end there. Once you’ve designed for mobile, and you move on to tablet and desktop views, you already know what’s important. Even once we have more room to add more stuff, we’re finding we don’t necessarily want to, because the mobile experience just works so well. The efficiency and relevance of the experience tends to hold up regardless of screen size. Sometimes, less is more.

What comes after mobile first?

If you’re at all familiar with the concept of mobile first, you might say, “Hey Acumium, mobile first isn’t really new.” You’re right; we’re not blazing new territory here, mobile first is just where the bulk of our clients are with the audiences they currently serve. In crafting our internal philosophy, however, we’ve taken it a little further than that, framing the conversation around being ready for what’s after mobile first. For lack of a better term, we called it “Informed Design to the Newest Constrained ‘Next’.” We define it as follows:

“We design first to the most constrained delivery mechanism that has achieved a critical mass audience and is showing growth. Our designs satisfy, at minimum, the 20% of functionality required by 80% of users to achieve primary goals.”

This mindset keeps us flexible and agile, important because the way people experience the Web changes almost daily. A delivery mechanism could include a smartphone, tablet, phablet, smartwatch, other wearable tech, an IoT (Internet of Things) interface, or something else entirely. The constraints could include viewport size, graphics/rendering ability, connectivity limitations, performance/speed, etc. And we measure critical mass audience by keeping a close eye on traffic trends for a particular client along with overall Internet usage trends.

Whether mobile first or something beyond it, our goal remains the same: serve our clients and their customers in the best way possible, building efficient, goal-oriented experiences that delight users no matter what size screen. So, in a sense, our design philosophy is actually “People First,” and that’s a philosophy we can get behind every day of the week.

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