What is Mobile First Design, and Why Should I Care?

By James Knutila on Friday, August 23, 2013

What is Mobile First Design, and Why Should I Care?

The concept of mobile first design is as simple as it sounds. Putting it into action, however, is complicated. Mobile first requires a rethink of the design process, and this can make it a difficult decision. The good news is that the benefits are clear, and they make the decision to go mobile first a no-brainer. 

Mobile first design is an approach outlined in 2009 by Luke Wroblewski. Put simply, mobile first is an approach to responsive design: design for smaller screens first, then add more features and content for bigger and bigger screens. 

This design approach is also known as "progressive enhancement." The alternative, or "graceful degradation," entails designing for a fully functional site first and working backward from there. They both sound nice, so what makes progressive enhancement better? 

Prepare for the Future

In web design antiquity (a few years ago), designers and developers created the best website they could for desktops. This made perfect sense -- desktop was the overwhelming touchpoint. But with mobile users set to overtake desktop users in 2014, mobile simply can no longer be an afterthought. Mobile first is the best preparation for the exploding universe of devices, not to mention the time and cost of future redesigns.

A Better Design Process

The best design focuses on delivering what's essential. That's much easier said than done, of course, especially when you're squeezing features and content onto a small screen. But if you understand the importance of mobile, you have to make these decisions at some point anyway. Left to the end of your process, they are more likely to be watered-down or forgotten. Get these tough decisions out of the way first, and the rest of your process will be a (relative) breeze. 

Improve User Experience

Users expect a new level of performance and function on their mobile devices. On a small device with low bandwidth there isn't much room for error, so these factors need to become priorities. Too much data -- even a split-second's worth -- can have a dramatic impact on load time. Focusing on mobile first ensures that you optimize the data sent, and also allows time to incorporate popular mobile features like touch and geolocation. 

With every new device and mobile statistic, mobile first design makes more sense. It's a tough transition to make, but ultimately you and your users will be benefit going forward. What are your thoughts on mobile first design?


Progressive Enhancement: What it is, and Why it Matters

Responsive and Adaptive: What's the Difference?

Images via Brad Frost and Hubspot.

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