Design Mobile First? Not necessarily…

Over the past year, a lot of user experience designers have advocated a “Mobile First” design strategy. The primary idea behind this strategy is when you design the mobile UI and experience first you are able to focus on the most important features, using the natural constraints of the device to ensure that the online design that you create afterwards is optimized and simpler.

In principle, an intriguing approach. But I have a contrarian opinion. I think that Mobile First in many cases is a BAD idea… one that will unnecessarily limit design opportunities and mislead designers into focusing on the wrong things. Here’s my reasons:

Remember, don’t ignore, context

If you approach a design project with a Mobile First approach, you are skipping a step… a pretty important one. When it comes to what you are designing, does mobile even matter? I’ve worked on over a dozen design projects since mobile has become a Big Thing, and at least half the time mobile isn’t even in the conversation… because the context of use doesn’t involve it. Stuff like wealth management, onboarding a new employee and setting up their permissions, or in-depth data analysis are activities that just aren’t done on a mobile device. I didn’t make a snap decision to come to that conclusion, I did the due diligence of interviewing users to find out that fact.

That doesn’t mean that as the mobile platform capabilities increase and improve, users won’t use mobile to accomplish many of the tasks that don’t make sense for them to do today… but like my father taught me, use the right tool for the right job. Sometimes, mobile just isn’t it.

Inputs and outputs

If you are designing an application, what information does the user need to accomplish the task the app is intended to do? I did research on online account origination for banks using a mobile app, and found that while people could and would apply for an account on their mobile phone, it was far from their first choice… and that the information they needed to fill out the application was something that would be at their desks, so they would fill out the application on their desktop computer.

Do users want/need to save the output of their work? Are they comfortable NOT having that ability in a mobile phone app? Again, you have to look at what users need (inputs) and what they want to get out of it (outputs) to determine if mobile makes sense as a platform for your design.

Are tablets mobile devices?

Product managers at my company has debated this point ever since the iPad was released, and there’s still not consensus as to whether it is or isn’t. You look at usage patterns and tablets aren’t mobile devices any more than laptops are, they are used the same way … so if you want to call laptops “mobile,” then tablets are, too. And the idea of “Tablet First” design fails for the same reason the Mobile First strategy does… it’s constraining when it doesn’t need to be.

Does mobile make things better?

There’s a lot of talk about how mobile wallets from Apple and Google are going to change how people shop and make payments. So far, I’m not seeing it. How is a mobile wallet quicker or better than a physical one? Why would people want to us it? When designing a solution for any medium or situation, always keep in mind what service you are trying to provide and the problem you are trying to solve. Too often I see many mobile apps that are solutions looking for a problem. And if you start with a Mobile First strategy, you may create a design solution that is exactly that.

Focus on users, not a platform or UI

Finally, a Mobile First design strategy is overly focused on a platform, not solving user’s problems. User experience designers need to focus on the users and their needs, not the constraints of a mobile UI or operating system conventions.

While there are many applications that make no sense on mobile, there are also many apps that would never exist if not for the mobile platform. Mobile is just a different way of doing things, and many things make perfect sense there. Many others do not. The key is to know your users, and accommodate their needs in ways that make sense wherever it may be… not just in one limiting platform.

Joseph Dickerson is a user experience professional and UX Lead for Microsoft based out of Atlanta, GA. He has implemented processes in user testing, design and ethnographic research and provided design and consulting services for many different projects and organizations.

Back to Top