Why Mobile First?

Things have changed so dramatically over the past few years, we can now make the case that starting with the desktop when planning your communications strategy may be an increasingly backwards way of thinking. It could be time for a mobile first approach.

Mobile First Design

 

Planning and designing for mobile first can open up new opportunities for growth and lead to a better overall user experience across all available platforms. Why?

  1. mobile is seeing explosive growth
  2. mobile forces you to focus and refine your message and its packaging

Mobile is growing like crazy. Analysts have been heralding mobile as the “next big thing” for years now and their prophecies are finally bearing fruit.  We can see this everywhere we look.

Perhaps the most inspiring set of statistics comes from MobileMarketer.com. They’ve compiled a list of shocking stats around mobile usage in 2011…

  • More smartphones bought in the U.S. than PCs
  • More wireless subscriptions in the U.S. than people
  • 2 billion networked devices by 2015

That’s a huge audience/user base that is emerging very quickly.  Now is the time to seize the opportunity and ride the curve instead of chasing it.

Planning for mobile first isn’t just an opportunity to create a mobile version of a web product to take advantage of this growth; it’s an opportunity to provide a vastly improved experience for your target audience.

Consider Facebook. According to Techcrunch, nearly 40% of Facebook users access the platform from the mobile app.  And according to Facebook’s data, these users are twice as active on Facebook as non-mobile users.

The combination of mobile and desktop experiences results in more engaged users across both sets of devices. That’s because Facebook doesn’t just think of its mobile experience as a port of the desktop site, it embraces it as a way to make the entire Facebook experience better.

As mentioned in my earlier post on HTML 5, if you want to see what is coming down the road for our industry, pay attention to the industry leaders who are making real-time adjustments to their services and methods based on user demands/trends.

In the words of Joe Hewitt, former lead developer for Facebook’s iPhone application: “My Goal was initially just to make a mobile companion, but I became convinced it was possible to create a Facebook that was actually better than the website.” That’s really the mobile opportunity in a nutshell.

Now…how do the constraints and capabilities of mobile devices help us take advantage of the mobile opportunity? Let’s take a look…

Mobile first means you are forced to focus

Designing for the mobile environment comes with a natural set of constraints. While some might argue these constraints limit mobile design, I believe they are inherently good for user experience. In particular, the small screens, slow connections and context of use of mobile devices are strong catalysts for great web design.

Limited screen space forces prioritization

Perhaps the most impactful of these constraints is screen space. When you are working with a smaller mobile screen size, sometimes, up to 80 percent of the screen size you had at the larger desktop screen space is now gone .

That means that 80 percent of the content, navigation, promotions and interactions you could fit on the desktop need to go away. And the more I experience mobile sites on my Android and iPod touch, I realize that is a great thing.

Losing that much screen space forces us to focus on and deliver what really matters. You have to make sure what stays on the screen is what’s most important to your audience. There simply isn’t any room for interface debris or content of questionable value.

We need to know what matters most.  We really need to know what matters to our audience and what will drive conversion. This is Web Design 101. Designing for mobile forces us to get there, like it or not.

Focusing on what matters helps address one of the longest standing issues in web design: the ‘everything including the kitchen sink’ problem that we’ve all seen.

When we design for mobile first, the end result is an experience focused on the key tasks users want to accomplish without the extraneous detours and interface clutter that litter many of websites out there. At these smaller mobile resolutions, there simply isn’t room for any of that.

Slow mobile connections make performance a priority

On mobile, performance really matters – you can’t count on good connections being present when someone tries to access the site. So it is no surprise that the assets and techniques developed to deliver the mobile experience will need to be optimized for less than ideal network connections.

Reducing the number and size of the file requests and taking advantage of HTML 5 capabilities such as application cache and CSS3 can dramatically improve download speeds.

But speed isn’t just important on the go. Testing done by Amazon, Yahoo, Microsoft and others has consistently shown that even small delays on desktop sites can turn users away. In fact, long term studies by Google found that slow performance has lasting effects, reducing activity even for weeks after a delay has been repaired.

Designing for “mobile first” forces us to put speed at the forefront of the development process to make up for the less than ideal network performance. The enhancements implemented for an improved mobile experience, will go a long way in making the desktop experience faster and better as well.

Context is no longer linear on mobile

While small screens and slow connections may be obvious constraints on the mobile environment, the mobile context is more subtle but no less important. In short, a mobile device is with people all of the time and consequently used across many different contexts (locations, times, social settings, etc). So designing for mobile amounts to designing something that can be used all of the time and in many different contexts and situations.

For example, research has shown that on a typical day 84 percent of users will use their smartphone at home, 80 percent during miscellaneous times during the day, 74 percent waiting in lines and 64 percent at work.

This use comes mainly in short bursts when people have a few minutes to kill and want to check in on something or use social media to communicate with “friends”. So the mobile experience does the best job at providing small, quick, time killing tasks that more and more people are taking advantage of.

Social “check in” apps (Twitter/Facebook/Foursquare/Google Latitudes) are perhaps the most popular because their content comes from people that we know. These continually updating applications provide that quick check in opportunity that users are looking for.

Because these apps generally provide small sized updates such as headlines or short messages, the cost of accessing one of these products to check in is relatively low for people on restrictive data plans.

Designing for “mobile first” forces marketers to consider how to deliver quick yet meaningful information to users on the go. This kind of engagement aligns well with mobile context but also drives reuse on the desktop. Products and services that are designed to encourage repeat use throughout the day are successful no matter what the platform is.

Mobile Capabilities

The web is built on a platform of rather simple capabilities (page markup, styling and scripting) determined by what web browsers can support.

But mobile browsers and application platforms are introducing exciting capabilities that leave many desktop browsers behind.  It is these extra features that will be the catalyst for the mobile internet overtaking the desktop.

Modern mobile devices are rich with new capabilities that open up different interactions between people, data and their immediate surroundings. Some of these capabilities include:

  • multi-touch input from one or more simultaneous gestures
  • precise location information from GPS/cell towers/Wi-Fi
  • user orientation from a digital compass
  • device positioning from an accelerometer
  • and integrated audio, video and photo input

Perhaps the defining capability of today’s devices is multi-touch support. Consider this, currently there are more phones owned than toothbrushes! As these numbers continue to grow, the number of people interacting with content using their fingers cannot be ignored.

When thinking about multi-touch, marketers need to re-consider design and planning to make their outreach efforts more adaptive and responsive across multiple platforms.

While a mobile first strategy might seem backwards or a bit scary, this is where we are heading. Think about marketing in general. 10 years ago few businesses were building their marketing plans by starting with their website. Now, that is where the majority of them do start. Mobile is the new wild west and pretty soon it will be the new norm.

Do you think Mobile First is a smart strategy? Let me know in the comments below.

Need help with your Mobile Marketing strategy? We would be happy to help you with that.

Derek is Wood Street’s SEO and web marketing specialist. With Wood Street since 2003, and a partner, Derek is an expert in web site optimization, Section 508 compliance, web site auditing, and web standards implementation. He provides a wide spectrum of specialty services including web design and development, interactive presentations, and print and graphic design. Derek is an Adobe Certified Dreamweaver Developer and an Adobe Certified Flash designer