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Is Mobile First Still Relevant?

By:
May 10, 2018

If you’ve been involved in a website or application project in the last decade, you’ve heard the phrase “Mobile First” suggested as an approach. Like many, you nodded your head in agreement, knowing that trying to optimize for mobile after the fact is difficult.  As a result, many projects have taken a mobile first approach. But, is it possible to create a defective desktop experience by using this approach?  And have mobile devices evolved to the point where they don’t need special consideration anymore?

With nearly a decade passing since the concept of mobile first emerged, let’s review where we started, and where we are now, and where we might be heading.

What exactly is Mobile First?

The concept of mobile first as an approach has been around for several years. In 2009, Luke Wroblewski wrote “Mobile devices require software development teams to focus on only the most important data and actions in an application. There simply isn’t room in a 320 by 480 pixel screen for extraneous, unnecessary elements. You have to prioritize.”

At the time, mobile usage was exploding. There was a need to shift to prioritizing the screen elements to eliminate extraneous features and content that made sites unusable on mobile devices. And by extension, building a website or application with mobile viewports in mind as the starting point made a lot of sense. Previously, mobile support was an afterthought, but not for long.

UX Teams Adapt

Not long after we started hearing about mobile first as a design approach, Google announced it that it would start prioritizing websites that were mobile-optimized in its search results. So, basically, if your site didn’t perform well on mobile devices, it wasn’t going to make the first page of results. If anything can kickstart a design and development movement, it’s the threat of being lost in Google search results. Smart UX teams started focusing on mobile at the outset.

Changing Expectations

Over the next decade, the mobile first approach influenced decisions in nearly all facets of web-related work. Many tools and processes for creating websites and applications have started to focus on mobile devices over larger screen sizes. Entire frameworks such as Bootstrap now prioritize the mobile screen resolution and require additional code to render larger screen sizes. For many, hearing that mobile is not being considered on a web project is alarming, if not offensive. Phrases like “Pinch & Zoom” and “m dot” have evaporated from the UX vernacular.  We were all-in on optimizing for mobile and mobile first become predominate mindset. In addition, users have come to expect to be able to access any online experience using the device that is most convenient for them at the moment.

A Decade Later, What’s Changed?

Mobile devices have gone through significant changes since 2009. Screen resolution has changed drastically as the the cost of the technology has gone down. We don’t have users on a 3.5” screen at 320 x 480 pixels anymore. Current smartphones have crushed those stats and even made non-mobile optimized sites fairly usable. For example, the latest offering from Samsung features an 8”display running at 2960 x 1440 pixels.

We’ve also seen much smaller screens on smart watches. Is it time for a Sub-Mobile First approach? Please, no.

Along with big changes in mobile devices, the prices high-resolution monitors have fallen. For some sites that went a little overboard in the mobile first approach, this means oceans of empty space in the layout with a microscopic hamburger menu that, in our research, users struggle to understand in the desktop context. Thankfully this isn’t too common, but it’s a good reminder that you don’t want mobile first to result in desktop as an afterthought.

Where We Are Headed

Is mobile first still relevant? No. There are too many screen sizes and other variables in play for us to consider any one of them over another. We can take the lessons we learned from the mobile first approach (focus on key tasks and content) and apply those lessons as we work to effectively accommodate all screen sizes. This omnichannel approach ensures users have good user experience across all devices.

Our research has shown that people will often visit a site on multiple devices and in some cases, switch from their mobile phone to a laptop or tablet to complete more in-depth tasks. More importantly, people will use whatever device is most convenient, so you want to be sure to accommodate your users regardless of the device they use to visit your site.

Here are some things to consider to better accommodate all screen sizes, and to maximize your users success, regardless of the device they use:

  • When considering what is to be included on any screen, make sure that you prioritize the features and content that are most critical to the user in that moment.
  • Start to think of your site content and features in their smallest possible units that can be combined presented in different ways depending on the device and context.
  • It’s unlikely that someone would complete a registration process using their smartwatch. When you decide where to spend your time optimizing the user experience of a feature, consider which viewports users will most likely use for that task.

Do you need help figuring out how to optimize your site for the many screen sizes and formats out there? Please send us a message. We’ll do our best to guide you through the process.

By Mike McClure
Director of Design + Development

Mike has been involved with user experience work since the early nineties. His experience spans the gamut, from strategy to UX development and front-end coding, to accessibility and animated guided tour videos.

View Mike's Bio

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