Why So Many Companies Are Embracing Mobile-First Principles
It’s difficult to walk down the street without seeing someone on their phone. Indeed, nearly all Americans have mobile phones that we carry with us 24 hours a day. So, it should come as no surprise that an increasing amount of web traffic, account management, and online customer interactions happen through mobile devices. Addressing this trend is the important work of mobile-first design.
At its core, mobile-first design seeks to simplify web pages so that they’re easier to navigate, load faster on cellular networks, and are portable to many different types of devices. As you’ve probably guessed, a mobile-first philosophy seeks to first address the user journeys on phones and tablets before considering what the desktop web application might look like.
From a business perspective, the benefits of mobile-first design can be huge. Customers increasingly expect a seamless experience across their devices. As companies get better at making mobile sites intuitive and easy to use, other companies who fall behind see slipping market share and customer dissatisfaction. In this guide, we’ll cover the key mobile-first principles you need to be thinking about to stay ahead of the competition.
People Prefer Phones: Shifting Consumer Preferences
According to 2019 usage statistics, more than half of all web traffic comes from mobile phones. On average US consumers spend over 3 hours per day on their phones for everything from paying bills, online shopping, and browsing social media.
Smart companies and UX designers have realized that the market has shifted. While desktop was once dominant, it’s no longer the foundation on which you should build your application. What’s needed is a paradigm shift. Mobile-first design encourages seeing mobile as the foundation for building your web application and letting all other devices build off it instead.
‘Responsive’ Design & Its Flaws
Many people confuse mobile-first design with its close cousin, responsive design. In the transition period, as the mobile market was maturing, responsive design was a great way to transition layouts from a desktop website to work on other platforms. It continues to be popular today.
However, now that the mobile market has matured and even overtaken desktop, responsively rehabbing desktop-first designs isn’t the best approach. Instead, starting with mobile when designing user journeys allows companies to home in on their core value propositions, find what tools the customer needs most, and trim the excess.
Separate Content from Form: Device-Agnostic Experiences
A key tenant of mobile-first design is separating content from form. This movement really gained steam with the advent of HTML 5. In the early days of the web, developers used HTML to write content to the page AND style that content at the same time. Under HTML 5, however, developers should now use HTML tags only for semantics, modeling page sections, and contextual clues. CSS is now the dominant means for styling web pages.
Moreover, increasingly web applications now use content APIs or “headless” content management systems that make a page’s content available as raw text or JSON. Then, designers can use CSS and other design tools to place that content as appropriate for individual devices.
The benefit of this approach is that content is consistent across devices. The content itself is device-agnostic. In the future, that same content could just as easily be shared with a screen reader, voice assistant, search indexer, or other outside application.
Mobile First, Not Mobile Only
Of course, just because you’re embracing mobile-first principles and design doesn’t mean you’ll neglect desktop or other devices. It’s important to plan, both in terms of budget and timeline, to spend time customizing your content and user journeys to match the device the customer is using. Doing this well will take time and attention to detail. It’s not always easy.
That said, you’ll find that embracing mobile-first principles from the beginning makes the rest of the design process easier. You’ve already distilled your application down to its essential parts and flows. Now, migrating that simplicity will greatly improve how customers engage with your desktop and other products.
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