The Benefits of Mobile-first Design
Want your users to have the best possible experience, regardless of where they’re surfing? Then designing for mobile first is for you. Just like the best entrepreneurs build their business to scale, mobile-first development involves starting small and growing from there. Finally, the days of trying to forecast mobile feature drops (and slow loading times) when transitioning to mobile are over!
Limited to the smaller space of a smart-phone screen or tablet, developers who utilize this mobile-first approach are inspired to think simple, homing in on the core needs of their consumers without trying to fill in all the white space with fluff.
In doing so, the method has gained international traction among developers who tout its distinct advantages in terms of maintaining accessibility and high-quality interaction points. Put differently, the mobile-first approach helps programmers, coders, and designers elevate their mobile response by concentrating on the user story and mobile app functionality, all while removing the common distractions that go with creating a simultaneous desktop platform.
The Decline of Desktop
For some app developers, creating a complementary desktop application for their business just doesn’t make the cut in terms of financial sense—why expand when there’s no value?
Lending to the idea that producing a mobile application first can lead to greater efficiency and even profitability in the long run, recent research has suggested that “desktop-only” users have dropped from 19.1% to 10.6% since 2014. “Mobile-only” use has on the other hand been rising with no expectations to slow down. Indeed, websites that don’t consider mobile users will likely see fewer and shorter visits, and lower engagement rates as a result of the longer load times and limited functionality that mobile users will experience using mobile internet applications like Chrome or Safari.
Considering this trend—as well as the reality that some aspects of a website that are designed for desktop-use are simply impossible to re-create on a mobile screen—desktop viewing is no longer the norm. Developers and business leaders alike are taking note of how important it is to optimize on the devices their audiences are using, and are exploiting their current resource capital to its fullest extent.
That being the case, developers are beginning to realize that moving backward from a desktop experience to a mobile one has too many drawbacks for too little reward. Instead of trying to fix the issues that often accompany scaling a large-screen experience down to a small-screen experience, developers are starting with mobile-first, working within the limitations of a smaller screen from the outset and ensuring that added desktop features don’t require an overhaul of the existing mobile features.
Related: Why Page Load Time Matters
Mobile-first and other Development Strategies
As developers pursue a mobile-first approach to application or web development, they may encounter three different methods that all seem to fall under the same umbrella, but which have distinct advantages and disadvantages regarding mobile app development. These are mobile-friendly design, responsive design, and mobile-first development—the latter of which we have discussed above.
To determine which approach might best benefit your business, and to help navigate the blended narratives of these three design responses, we propose the following definitions as they intersect with programming, design, and user feedback.
Mobile-friendly design sounds all warm and fuzzy, but it does have its drawbacks. Although the advantage lies in having the mobile and desktop designs interact, or mimic each other in much the same way, some app developers warn against thinking of the two platforms as a single market. That said, the aims of this approach to design ultimately aid site loading time in the same way that mobile-first development does.
A mobile-friendly desk-top site aims to meet the majority of its mobile users’ needs. Decisions must be made as to what features to remove from the mobile-friendly version of your site (since not all can be recreated), but once those are made, the end-result is superior user experience. For example, while the desktop version of a website might have large hero images on the home page, the mobile version will likely scale down the size of these photos, or remove them altogether to provide a cleaner user experience—ultimately drawing focus to your actionable buttons.
Alternatively, while a desktop version of a website might display photos horizontally across the page, the mobile version may display these photos vertically, altering the design impact of your mobile application. At the expense of certain desktop functionalities, mobile-friendly designs thus keep their focus on transferring core consumer needs to a mobile environment.
Responsive Web Design
When mobile friendly design first became popular, many businesses were rushing to adapt their existing websites to meet the requirements for functionality. That’s the basis of what some have begun calling Responsive Web Design (RWD). RWD not only encompasses the idea of mobile-friendly design, but is also used to describe designing web pages for a variety of screen sizes and orientations. When designing with responsive web design, the goal is to provide the optimal viewing experience regardless of the device in use. In other words, the overall design and development should automatically respond to user behavior and environment based on platform, orientation, and screen size.
Where this approach departs from mobile-first design, however, is in its retroactive strategy where mobile comes last in terms of design priorities. With an advantage in terms of web re-design, creating a mobile presence only as an after-thought to the initial web platform can impact both scaling and progression. After all, it’s harder to change something already very set in its ways.
Ever since the term was coined, mobile-first design focused on creating an optimal user experience for the largest screen consumers might use—usually a desktop. Designing with mobile as the leading enterprise has since disrupted more established methods by starting small (Bottom’s-up, anyone?).
The minute focus relieves developers of many of the stresses that simultaneous desktop and mobile application can bring, leaving team members free to concentrate on disrupting their specific mobile marketplace, using their mobile application almost like a prototype to forecast consumer and audience engagement behaviour before launching a full-scale desktop application or webpage.
As smartphones grow and grow in popularity, and as mobile use continues to increase, so too does the mobile-first development approach continue to evolve. You might even be reading this on a mobile device right now—and you can be sure that the developers behind the page your reading have worked long and hard to ensure you see their content they way they intended.
Just starting out on your own journey toward great app development, and thinking of building your own app?
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