Regardless of your industry or niche—whether you have a blog, an online store or an eCommerce website—designing with a mobile-first approach will ensure your site meets the expectations of your mobile users when it comes to speed, appearance, ease of navigation and overall user experience. With over 80% of internet users surfing the web on mobile devices and up to 70% of web traffic coming from mobile devices, you must optimize your website for mobile use.
If you’re wondering why designing a mobile website is important, consider the fact that nearly half of Americans consider themselves “addicted” to cell phones. We scan QR codes, navigate GPS, take photos, track steps, sleep next to, and, of course, browse the internet on our phones every day. You’re probably reading this on your mobile phone right now.
In this article, we’ll cover what mobile-first design is, why it matters and how you can implement it into your website.
What is mobile-first design?
As the name suggests, mobile-first design refers to the philosophy of designing your website around mobile users’ needs. Mobile-first website design considers smaller screens’ limits right from the start for a better mobile user experience. This mobile-first approach is rooted in progressive advancement, when a designer creates a website layout specifically for mobile and adapts to bigger screens later on. This method opposes graceful degradation, or designing for a larger screen and working backwards to the smallest.
A user can obtain only so much content from a device’s dimensions. For example, a visitor has ample space to view and consume a website’s content on a 27-inch Mac monitor. However, another user viewing your site on their iPhone 11 or Galaxy 12 screen will have an entirely different experience. Mobile-first design streamlines your UX design efforts by optimizing the most essential features for users.
Adaptive and responsive design
Designers use two main approaches when it comes to mobile website design: responsive and adaptive. We have an in-depth article covering responsive vs adaptive design, but let’s quickly go over how they differ:
- Adaptive web design (AWD): Uses fixed layouts and chooses the best option for the user’s screen size. Adaptations are limited to what the web designer has created. Adaptive web designs fit into these standard viewports; 320 px, 480 px, 760 px, 960 px, 1200 px and 1600 px.
- Responsive web design (RWD): Automatically hides, shrinks or enlarges a site to improve display on any device (mobile or desktop). Responsive design fluidly adjusts a website’s appearance according to the browser window’s size.
Why is mobile-first design important?
Mobile technology continuously evolves—with ever-enhancing speed, higher quality video streaming capabilities and advances in wireless connectivity—changing the very way we manage our day-to-day lives. In fact, Sony predicts phones will soon overtake DSLR cameras, proving that technological advances can impact any industry. Many companies have also shifted to hybrid work models and adopted new mobile communications strategies.
Mobile-first design matters for the following reasons:
1. Improved user experience with UX design
Mobile device trends reveal both challenges and opportunities for UX and web designers. However, at its core, mobile-first design puts user experience front and center. As the Interaction Design Foundation states,
“[UX designers] tailor experiences to match mobile environments. Attention spans are short in mobile UX. Users want results fast, with minimal effort and zero friction. They’re often distracted.”
With this in mind, mobile-formatted websites inherently offer an optimized and more well-thought-out user experience.
Mobile-first design provides users with greater control over when and where they can access a website. As The Drum reports,
“Perhaps the best approach is to think of the internet experience as a fluid thing which should not depend on what browser or OS or device you use. The precedent here is web accessibility – making websites easy to use by people with disabilities, primarily sight impairment.”
By designing or even redesigning a website for mobile accessibility, you’ll include users who your content may have otherwise excluded. As the same article shares, “in the same way that not considering a mobile user excludes them from your desktop site.” For example, mobile-first design makes e-learning accessible and usable, since mobile users can use voice commands or listen to content while driving or exercising, turning otherwise unproductive time into learning opportunities.
3. Better website performance
Mobile optimization is a core principle of website performance. In fact, research shows that when mobile retail site speed improves by 0.1 second, conversion improves by 8.4%. Not to mention that Google has used mobile-first indexing for over a decade, primarily crawling and indexing the pages that adhere to a mobile-first design. Basically, the better you design a site for mobile use, the easier the use—and the better the performance. Following mobile website best practices like a strategic content hierarchy and optimizing images, can help ensure your site is living its best/strongest mobile life.
A mobile-first approach will help you scale your design across different devices. When you conceptualize an idea on mobile, you’ll find it easier to adjust your content to meet desktop needs. For example, it’s easier to add website elements to a desktop version (which has bigger screen real estate) than take them away to fit your mobile site.
Mobile-first – content first
Always remember that content is key when designing with a mobile-first mindset. Users viewing your site on mobile have way less space than a desktop monitor, so you’ll have to strategically decide what content to include.
Mobile-first design principles
Consider these key elements when designing a website with a mobile-first approach.
- Content first. Always consider your content first and strategically choose what is most important. Visitors will see your header content on both your mobile and desktop site, so ensure it instantly conveys your brand identity. For example, your desktop version might include extra decorative imagery for viewers, but with less space on a mobile version you’ll want to ensure the imagery you display best conveys your brand identity, such as your logo and product images.
- Navigation. Help users move around on your mobile site and meaningfully consume your content by following strategic website navigation tips like adding clear CTAs and choosing the right menus. Many designers will opt for a hamburger menu to make the most out of the usable space on a mobile screen.
- Hierarchy. Consider website hierarchy when designing your website layout for mobile users. Carefully plot out your website content by adding headers and subheaders, utilizing white space, creating image blocks and optimizing navigation tools.
- User-friendly interface. Beyond content and visuals, ensure your mobile-first design is user-friendly. For example, mobile users have direct access to their camera, touch screens, finger and face recognition as well as autocomplete fields. This means that you must attend to your website buttons, as a mobile site user will have higher chances of clicking the wrong button.
- Test on real devices. Before you publish, test your mobile site on real devices to understand how your user will experience your site. Try it on different screen sizes and devices to catch any variances between them.