Mobile First Design: The Highs and Lows


image By Leah Rutherford | Solution21

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In the past, it used to be of great importance for web designers and clients to focus on creating a desktop website before focusing on a mobile alternative. Even though responsive design is becoming more important, most consider working on a “full size” website before focuses on other platforms.

Over time, the industry is beginning to change its view, and mobile websites are becoming a higher priority than larger desktop alternatives. Understanding the pros and cons of this focus shift is essential in determining how you and your company should approach website design.

Reconsidering mobile web design

It is not unusual for website designers to hear their clients refer to mobile website design as a “niche industry.” This couldn’t be further from the truth. Mobile web use isn’t a trend. It isn’t just part of the future. It is the present-day standard for web browsing for so many individuals. Mobithinking released statistics to give you an idea of how important mobile web design can be:

• Approximately 25% of web users are mobile-only, rarely utilizing a desktop computer to access the internet
• 1.2 billion mobile web users exist worldwide
• The sales of mobile devices have increased considerably as of 85% of handsets used for mobile web access
• 10.9 billion times – the number of mobile app downloads

When you read these statistics, you will quickly realize that a quarter of your website visits will only see the mobile version of a business website. This revelation makes it so much more important for companies to make their mobile website design a primary focus.

Why consider mobile web access first?

It’s no surprise that most of today’s web access is through the expensive mobile devices found in everyone’s pockets these days. While the desktop is still one of the most crucial mediums for internet access, with 75% of internet surfers still using it as a primary method of access, it should not be forgotten or made a lower priority yet. But because the majority of internet users are still using desktop computers for online access, why should we consider mobile first?

What is graceful degradation?

Graceful degradation was a term that developed regarding functionality of a website on as many platforms as possible. New technology such as tablets and mobile devices was making it more important than ever to set up websites that didn’t exclude users. Developing a site with the best experience possibly regardless of the accessing device was of great importance, and that any shortcomings would be addressed as soon as possible to avoid malfunction on one platform versus another.

When it came to mobile web design, website designers focused on scaling back from the standard website accessible by desktop and removing content such as Flash design to make a simpler, smaller version of the original website. This builds upon progressive enhancement. Progressive enhancement is the process of building a mobile website, then enhancing the website later for other platforms with less constraints.

Why consider progressive enhancement?

While graceful degradation and progressive enhancement both have their benefits, business owners need to consider the greater advantages of progressive enhancement. In the traditional way of building a website, many focused on making the desktop platform the “latest and greatest” with all sorts of great technology and space. But then when the mobile version was made, it seemed “watered down” with much less content and a basic web design that was completely devoid of most of the technology used to create the primary site. This caused mobile websites to feel more like an afterthought instead of a polished duplicate of the desktop version.

With progressive enhancement, companies focus from the start on the mobile site. They can create a website that is lean, responsive, and effective in providing the information customers are looking for. Then, when the designer starts working on the desktop design, special features and technologies can be easily added to fabricate a robust and comparable site without making the two feel like separate entities altogether.

Selective web content

If utilizing the school of thought of progressive enhancement, the ultimate idea is that the end result of the desktop site will be much improved if the mobile-first approach is considered. The graceful degradation stance results in basically a stripped-down version of the website which removes content such as audio, video, images, and text that contribute to the information customers are seeking when they visit a business site. This means that the website may be had way more content on it than was even necessary and caused the site to download slower than a leaner mobile site would.

By shifting to the viewpoint of mobile-first, web designers are able to focus on what is absolutely necessary information and then build the desktop version accordingly. This greatly reduces the unnecessary elements on a desktop page and making the computer website faster to load and easier to navigate to the pertinent information customers are seeking.

How does this fit in with responsive design?

Responsive design is focused on media queries for specific sized devices. Coding a website with CSS to be viewed from a mobile device can be edited accordingly for access from other platforms. The idea here is to start large and reduce from there. But there is a substantial amount of logic that goes behind structuring media queries starting from small and increasing to large.

Downfalls of mobile-first development

Mobile-first web design definitely has its advantages, but there are some downfalls that need to be considered. While mobile first design is not easy or fun, it can be tailored to a specific project in an appropriate manner. Mobile first design lays out a number of constraints right from the start, including less resources and a smaller screen. It can be uncomfortable territory for someone who is used to building their website design career from desktop platforms. The strict design makes it difficult to really have much creativity in the same way a desktop platform provides. These restrictions can be almost debilitating for website designers who struggle in the area of mobile platforms. However, by focusing on mobile first, these designers can build their portfolio with quality sites on all platforms, allowing for room to grow and become a better design professional.

Take the first step

What is holding you back from reevaluating your current website offerings and switching it up with what seems to be of growing importance each and every day? Analyze your current desktop site, compare it to your mobile site, and start considering the benefits of thinking “backward” with building a mobile site first and beefing it up for your desktop offering. What are your thoughts on the mobile-first design approach?

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