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Paradigms change. Sometimes they change naturally. Others need a little nudge in the right direction. Mobile first design is an example of the latter.
The idea of Mobile First Design has been around for a while now. Google started floating the idea back in 2010 and really started pushing it shortly after. But Google pushes a lot of ideas and the wake of their changes tend to be both broad and long.
There is an enormous audience of developers, advertisers and businesses that respond to the disruptive changes Google makes. It can take a while for all of them to catch on but Mobile First Design is starting to gain traction.
The premise of Mobile First is simple. Rather than designing a website for desktop then adapting it for mobile, developers take the opposite approach. Starting by developing the mobile site they then adapt the mobile site for desktop.
Why Mobile First?
It doesn’t require an enormous leap in imagination to reverse the convention and suggest designing for mobile first. The real question is why should developers work this way? Developers have been producing websites Desktop First for a while now and things seem to be going fine. What are the benefits of designing Mobile First?
The first thing to understand is the growing importance of the mobile market. Including apps, mobile already counts for more than half of online traffic.
This figure is growing steadily as affordable smartphones give many new users greater access to the internet. There is also the fact that many transactions that finish on desktop start on mobile. Considering this growing importance, having a mobile focused development makes sense.
Mobile Design Philosophy
This is not the only reason to design Mobile First. There is also an element of design philosophy. Essentially it is easier to build up than to break down. In Mobile First terminology this is described as the conflict between Graceful Degradation and Progressive Enhancement.
The conventional development approach is to design the site for desktop using all the features and capabilities that format provides. Then the desktop design needs to be scaled back to fit within the restrictions of the mobile site and the user experience refined for the mobile interface.
This “Graceful Degradation” means developers have to look for elements of the site to cut out or hide. This tends to create a site that is either sluggish because it is loading hidden elements on a less powerful device or one containing hamstrung design components that don’t match the capabilities they provide on desktop. Neither option is ideal.
By designing the mobile platform first developers produce a site that works first and foremost within the constraints of the mobile platform. This ensures the mobile site works seamlessly and provides acceptable UX. Additions can then be made that take advantage of the broader capabilities of the desktop format, “Progressively Enhancing” the mobile design.
User Experience is Key
User Experience should always trump design when it comes to site development. A site can have the most elaborate design elements a designer can cram in but if a visitor can’t figure out how to navigate to the store page the designer has failed in their job.
Mobile First forces site developers to focus in on UX and ensure the site works for visitors. That optimal mobile UX can then be translated to desktop to bring the fluidity of a well made mobile site to all platforms. This is the fundamental benefit of Mobile First design.