Mobile design, and web design in general, is constantly evolving to find better ways to serve the user. Just look at how far we’ve come since the early days of mobile device adoption, when what mobile users encountered on the web were desktop sites rendered on tiny mobile screens.
We all remember what a terrible experience that was. Endless pinching and scrolling were required to read content, and filling out a web form was a fool’s errand.
As mobile website traffic became a reality, companies started to realize the necessity of designing browsing experience that were functional on mobile, and the solution that we ended up with was mobile sites.
These sites were totally separate from their desktop companions, and because it was assumed that mobile users had fewer needs than desktop users and wouldn’t want access to the same breadth of information, they amounted to very stripped back versions of desktop sites. It was an improvement, but it was still severely limiting to the user.
Think of mobile-friendly design as the bare minimum required in this day and age. The site functions on mobile, even if in reality it might essentially be a reorganized version an experience that was conceived of for desktop.
Now think of mobile-first as a step beyond that bare minimum of usability -- a site that is thoroughly mobile from its inception. Anything that is mobile-first is necessarily mobile-friendly, since it was designed specifically with the consideration of mobile devices as the default.
So what are the arguments for going beyond mobile-friendly to become mobile-first?
1. Mobile is becoming the status quo
When desktop browsing was the status quo, it made sense to design first for that experience. Desktop was where most website traffic came from, and where most sales or lead generation occurred, and businesses were rightly focused on that specific experience.
For a long time mobile remained something of an afterthought, and many people assumed users simply wouldn’t want to perform more complex tasks on their mobile devices. But as devices became more sophisticated, usability improved and speeds got faster.
Now mobile users will carry out nearly any conceivable task on their devices, from booking an appointment or a flight to buying an expensive luxury item.
More than half of all searches done on Google are done via mobile device. In many industries mobile share of traffic can far exceed 50%. There are many Americans -- up to 20% of the population in certain income brackets -- for whom a mobile device is the only device they use to access the web from home.
These numbers speak to the fact that mobile, not desktop, is becoming the new status quo and we should adjust to that shift by designing first for that experience.
2. Mobile-first ensures scalability
Space is very limited when it comes to designing for mobile, which means that experiences that are conceived for desktop can’t always be properly scaled down to function on smaller devices.
The result can be a mobile experience that just isn’t as useful or as interesting as the desktop one, and one that leaves 50% or more of your users with an underwhelming experience of your site.
When the experience is conceptualized on mobile, on the other hand, there’s no risk of designing something that can’t be adjusted upwards to meet the needs of desktop.
You can add more features as you scale up to desktop, but the core of what your website does and what its purpose is, is that was conceived on mobile and it will always be able to live there.
3. Mobile-first demands focus
Designing for mobile is a challenge in and of itself, and designing with a mobile-first approach is even more of a challenge.
It’s one thing to design a desktop experience and find creative ways to make it work for mobile, but it’s an entirely different thing to reimagine the entire design process by beginning with the smallest screen and scaling up.
Taking a mobile-first approach necessitates a lot of focus and attention on the needs of the user, and it requires the company to hone in on what is most essential about its message and its content.
There’s no room for flashy widgets and vanity features. In a way, a mobile-first approach offers the chance to strip away distractions and distill the experience down to what really matters.
It’s great to see more and more businesses investing in making their websites mobile-friendly. It’s become a business imperative at this point. But mobile-friendly isn’t forward thinking, it's a basic standard.
Mobile-first design, on the other hand, is a solution that meets user needs in the present while ensuring the website can accommodate the increasing multi-device future.