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Being 'mobile first' doesn't mean being mobile only

Recently the term ‘Mobile First’ has become part of the marketing industry’s lexicon, but what does ‘Mobile First’ design really mean?

Many people, even in our industry, use the term ‘Mobile First’ interchangeably with just having a responsive mobile website or app. But being truly ‘Mobile First’ means so much more than just having an online mobile presence.

The importance of mobile AND desktop

Mobile has a large audience, and that audience is growing all the time. In 2014 we’ve seen mobile become the most used tech device for the first time, and if you look at the BBC, more than half of all BBC online users are now accessing their content through mobile devices.

But, what is also really interesting about that stat is desktop usage for the BBC is not actually dropping off as you might imagine it would, desktop is remaining pretty consistent.

Just because a brand’s tablet and mobile audience is growing doesn't mean they should leave their desktop audience behind. What it really boils down to is periods of use. When we go on the train or bus, we all use our mobile or tablet to access content, which means the morning and early evening is the most popular usage time for mobiles and tablets. Desktops still dominate heavily during working hours.

A statistic from last year showed that 84% of all web traffic is still coming from desktops. So, while it is important, mobile isn't the be all and end all. Brands shouldn't prioritise mobile; they need to consider the needs of both audiences.

What does ‘Mobile First’ design mean today?

Clarissa Peterson sums up how brands should approach mobile first design in this simple analogy:

“Think of it like you’re moving. If you’re living in a mansion and you have to move into a small apartment, it’s really hard to find a place for all of your stuff. If you live in a small apartment first, you learn how to get by with less stuff, and you can then add more stuff when you move into a mansion.”

In essence, being ‘Mobile First’ is all about constraining yourself to the essentials. With the restrictions you have, such as, screen size, user experience, and so on, you have to really think carefully about each element to decide what’s important to your customers, what content is essential, and which UI you really need in there.

Mobile designers should be looking at clever solutions to optimise the space they have available. It has to be clear, simple, and focused.

Top tips to design for ‘Mobile First’

Trim the fat

Think only about the essentials. That is the foundation of ‘Mobile First’. Strip your content back to only what is really necessary for the user, regardless of what platform you are using. Think about the crucial elements needed to create the best user experience for your customer.

Think user before platform

A lot of brands and designers consider the platform first, but you should be designing for the user. Consider how users want to use it, when they use it, and why they use it. We should change the term ‘Mobile First’ to ‘User First’, because that's what we should be doing and it's the most efficient way to design.

Scale up appropriately

If you're on desktop use desktop design, don't use mobile design, it just doesn't make sense. Use the UI platform packs appropriate for the platform.

Embrace new tech now

Don't leave new technology behind and then you won’t get left behind. You've got to find out what works for your company and sometimes you've got to fail if you want to succeed.

Chris Robinson is Senior Digital Designer at Digital Annexe and  first presented on this topic at DA University 2014 in November 2014

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