What does it mean to design for mobile first and why should we bother? If a business owner wants to reach as many people as possible, to rephrase the famous dictum of “Wee Willie” Keeler, one will need to hit ‘em where they are. Statistics found in the Pew Research Center’s Mobile Technology Fact Sheet state that 90% of American adults own a cell phone. 64% of American adults own a smartphone. 60+% of all cell phone owners use their phone to access the internet, which includes smartphones and regular cell phones. This doesn’t include other mobile devices such as tablets and e-readers. Consumers are on their mobile devices and business owners need to make sure that all their content on the World Wide Web is accessible via a mobile device. For business owners that haven’t planned for mobile first, a shift needs to happen or be left behind.
If that’s the case, what does the shift entail? I can’t say that before mobile devices, designing and developing websites was a known, well understood enterprise that delivered a homogeneous experience. The Web, as we know it, had growing pains before it came to be what it is. Web design and development had to suffer through periods such as the “Browser Wars,” proprietary markup, problematic third-party plugins for rich interactive experiences, and the cannibalization, of the Web API, in order create layouts that violated the original specification. The web was a messy place, and throughout this pre-mobile era, while grudgingly engaging in technically regrettable actions, such as using tables for page layout, designers and developers screamed for a clean standard.
The emergence of mobile as a major point of consumption finally forced the powers that be, such as the World Wide Web Consortium, software corporations, and browser vendors to come together and implement a Web API that would work at all points of consumption and deliver experiences that never break no matter the device. The standard is not complete, nor universally adopted, but we are closer to one than ever before.
To answer the first question, the attitude of designing for mobile first is to keep in mind that someone using a mobile browser will access content a majority of the time. Therefore, the design process ought to begin with the limitations of the mobile viewport in mind. The good news here, is that nothing new needs to be developed. No fancy plugins need to be created to enjoy content within a mobile context. When someone says that your new website should be responsive, that means that certain elements will adjust to the viewport limits. The website will, by default, contain as little rigid layout rules as possible. The big secret about HTML, the language of the World Wide Web: it’s responsive by default.
For years, designing for the web meant one kind of display, the desktop monitor. There was no demand for anything like a responsive layout. As a result, designers created layouts where the default behaviors of elements were immediately overridden and fixed. Once mobile design began to emerge, after the old method metastasized into the marrow of the web design process, the initial approach to web design was to plan for desktop and then see what one could do about mobile. Making a website responsive meant breaking the layout to fit a mobile device. In a way, designers were breaking the web standard twice. The approach should actually be inverted. Website content and layout should be planned for display on the smallest viewport and then altered for larger desktop displays.
The business owner’s content strategy will have to change. First, it means the website will be as lean as possible. It will contain the minimum amount of content necessary to deliver the message. Images will be lightweight. Images and video do improve engagement, but what good does all the images and video in the world do when the user navigates to somewhere else because the page takes too long to load? The number of requests made over the network will be reduced to a minimum. Faster page load times translates to higher retention rates, especially over mobile. There’s an added benefit to minimizing page load time: Google gives higher page rank to sites that load quickly.
When one plans a website for mobile first consumption, the result is a lean, mean property to which visitors may want to return and continue consuming, especially if the content is changed on a regular basis. As more visitors return, and hopefully share the site’s location among friends, the company’s visibility improves. If the company’s website isn’t responsive to a user’s mobile device, one can only expect the user’s ability to take the company seriously to dwindle over time. It’s time for that company to consider a new approach with mobile as the priority.