I recently sat on a panel hosted by the Tampa Bay Technology Forum called “Best Practices in App and Website Design.” The moderator, Justin Davis of Drawer, asked the panel what we thought about the growing popularity of “mobile first.”
One of my fellow panelists stated that mobile first was nothing more than a buzzword. I would argue that the term buzzword itself has become a buzzword thrown around anytime someone wants to dismiss something as unimportant or ineffective. Having taught mobile design and development to hundreds of students, I realized early on that mobile first was neither of these. I’ll be addressing mobile first from the perspective of those designing websites and applications, often with mobile devices in mind.
Although it is widely accepted that mobile is the future (and the present), many designers still ask why they should care about mobile first design. After all, as long as we make an effort to design a good experience on all platforms, what difference does it make if we start our process by designing a desktop website or a mobile one? The answer may come from a closer look at two of the techniques employed when developing websites for multiple platforms and browsers.
The first of the two techniques is graceful degradation.
Graceful degradation arose out of a need to support users who viewed our sites on platforms or with browsers that did not support the latest features (IE6 anyone?). Yet those features were the ones we could not wait to use. Designers would create the best experience possible for those users with the most feature rich browser and then ‘gracefully’ degrade the design. That degradation would maintain a baseline of functionality for those users who were running less capable browsers.
The second technique is progressive enhancement.
Progressive enhancement occurs by reversing this approach and starting with the most restrictive platform (typically mobile) and providing the best experience possible. The designer is then forced to focus and prioritize due to the constraints and limitations of that initial platform. From there, the designer builds upon this experience by enhancing it for more capable browsers and platforms. Many designers will tell you that such constraints foster creativity and problem solving.
This produces results for all platforms, not just mobile. Some designers have stated that by starting with mobile design, it forces their clients to understand visual hierarchy and content priority. This is something that is more challenging to do when starting a design from the less restrictive desktop perspective. Developers also stated that a mobile design approach has put a new focus on efficiency and has resulted in faster performance across all mediums.
In addition, by embracing mobile first as a design philosophy, we are able to explore both the new capabilities presented by mobile platforms and the various contexts in which end users will interact with our website or application on mobile. By doing so, we are in a position to adopt new trends like show rooming and technology like iBeacon or NFC to better serve mobile users.
The mobile first mentality can provide a streamlined process, better understanding of our clients, improved application and website performance, and cutting edge capabilities. I highly recommend reading Mobile First by Luke Wroblewski, which discusses how to integrate a mobile first approach into your design process.