Adopting a mobile first strategy

Heres a blog post I wrote for the positive website.

The times they are a-changin’ – we are all well aware of the explosion of the smartphone market, the increasing popularity of portable tablet devices, mirrored by a steady decline in the sales of desktop computers. This has rightly been cause for concern – we’ve been optimising our websites accordingly, and making sure they work as nicely on an iPad as they do on a desktop. We’ve even been making fantastic web experiences specifically for mobile and tablet. But is it time to fundamentally rethink the order in which we plan, create and deploy our projects across different devices?

It is widely predicted that by 2015 (or even sooner) mobile will exceed desktop usage of the web, yet almost every website recently created is desktop optimised. Mobile is all too often an afterthought, using the last few drops of budget. It is time to adapt and move our mind-sets from a “desktop first” strategy to a “mobile first” digital strategy.

By this I mean we need to stop thinking about mobile as a secondary concern to the desktop and put it at the core of our planning. This may seem radical, but it isn’t a new concept by any means; Google has claimed to be a mobile first company since 2010, and renowned strategist Luke Wroblewski led the way in arguing the case for a mobile first digital strategy as early as 2009. Looking at and segmenting your web traffic you may think that considering this now is jumping the gun, but it is a mind-set change that will have to be done by everyone eventually. The sooner we can adopt it, the better prepared we are for tomorrow, therefore keeping us one step ahead of the competition.

Thinking “mobile first” has further benefits. Designing for mobile forces us to focus on the core of our offering, and get that core right first before worrying about the peripheral. As a UX designer I take great pleasure in designing mobile experiences, the constraints of mobile (such as screen size and connection speed) mean that the first task is often to remove anything that is not completely necessary from the page or anything that could be considered to be visual clutter. This is a great exercise that enables us to work out the hierarchy of information and content.

So how can a mobile first digital strategy be applied to a typical website project?

“Responsive design” is one technique, and a healthy starting point for most new projects. The idea is that we plan and design from the mobile up. We start with a mobile optimised website (fits in a narrow viewport, has lean amounts of imagery, is fast to load). Next we allow the mobile site to scale up to the viewport of a tablet, adding graphics and other rich features as it scales. Finally we have the desktop version, which you might call all singing and all dancing. This way we don’t have a “mobile website” and a “desktop website” we have one website which adapts to how it is being viewed, which has had its structure and content optimised to be as simple and usable as possible. This method isn’t suited to every project, but is a good first port of call for any new brief.

New thinking often leads to new problems. Images need to work at different sizes with this methodology and we are yet to find the perfect way to scale them dynamically without affecting download speeds. Traditional banner advertising and other revenue sources such as PPC advertising are generally hidden on responsive designs when they are viewed on a mobile – this will surely mean that they are not seen by most of their intended audience soon. How can we make advertising work in this new medium?

The answers aren’t all there yet, but that’s one of the things that makes today an exciting time to be working in digital. We are at one of the great crossing points; a sea change is among us. It’s time to adapt or lose out, and adopting a mobile first strategy is the key step in evolving your business to meet tomorrow’s new challenges. Mobile first – a strategy for refinement, clarity, speed and a strategy for the future.

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