Mobile-First Web Design: The New Approach in Web Design
We Live in a Mobile-First World
In 2019 the world is mobile oriented. Consumers of all kinds transact business, search for information, purchase goods and services, and perform a myriad of other tasks on their mobile devices. As a result, any business website needs to provide an acceptable mobile user experience or consumers will simply look elsewhere. So why is mobile-first web design still not the accepted standard?
Take a look around you. What do you see? Chances are that you will notice people glued to little glowing screens. In the office, on the subway, in restaurants and on the street, we seemingly are unable to live without our mobile devices any more. Here in Japan that trend is even more pronounced. I can walk through an entire shopping arcade without seeing anyone not focused on their smartphone.
If you are not meeting the mobile user expectations of modern consumers, you are simply not going to do well with your online presence. And it no longer matters what kind of business you are in. Chances are that sometime, somewhere someone will hit on your site from a mobile device. What happens next is up to you. You can stick your head in the sand, and hope for the best. Or you can adapt to mobile-first web design instead of simply desktop design.
The New Approach in Web Design: Mobile-First Instead of Desktop-First
An Industry Standard That Is Considered Optional
Until now, web design industry practices favored developing desktop-oriented websites, including a wide range of features and functions, such as special graphics, visual, and audio aids. This type of functionality provides great user experience, but it requires larger screen sizes and faster data connections. And until recently that worked for most businesses.
Many business owners, especially those in more traditional industries, tend to focus mainly on the desktop experience of their website. If it looks good on their office monitor, they are pretty happy. Often, when I ask them how their site looks and functions on a mobile device, they simply shrug their shoulders. Mobile-first web design is simply not on their horizon. Most often they don’t even understand what it means.
As a result, many business owners consider mobile-first web design to be more of an option rather than a necessity. Unfortunately, that is not a good way of thinking in 2019. Mobile-first web design has pretty much become the industry standard in 2019. Providing a great mobile user-experience is essential if you want to attract and convert a mobile audience. And mobile-first web design is the most effective way to improve your mobile user experience.
What Exactly is Mobile-First Web Design?
I get this question a lot. Many business owners tend to confuse responsive design with mobile-first design. Having a responsive website simply means it will actually render on a mobile device. It will not provide the mobile user experience modern consumers have come to expect. So, what exactly is a mobile-first web design, and how does it relate to responsive or mobile-friendly design?
In order to fully understand mobile-first web design, you will need to know the difference between mobile-first web design, responsive web design, and their inferior, and annoying, older relative: mobile-friendly web design. Let me quickly walk you through each of those concepts.
Mobile-Friendly Web Design
In the beginning, there was mobile-friendly web design. Essentially, a mobile-friendly website is a website that is designed to function on a phone or tablet. Please note the key word here is “function.” Mobile-friendly web design simply means your website will actually render on a small screen device.
A mobile-friendly website “functions” on any device, but it appears the same way on that device as it would on a computer. And that was the problem! A computer screen has a completely different shape, size and aspect ratio than your average smartphone or tablet.
Therefore, it is impossible to create a mobile-friendly website that provides a great mobile user experience on any device. I am sure you remember all the pinching and zooming in and out you had to do to simply view a website on a small screen. And I am sure you will agree that was a horrible user experience!
Responsive Web Design
Responsive web design, on the other hand, is the process of building websites that provide an acceptable mobile user experience across all devices and screen sizes. Unlike mobile-friendly websites, responsive websites will never have you zooming, squinting or pinching to actually view a site on any mobile device. How does that work, you ask?
Google defines responsive web design as “a setup where the server always sends the same HTML code to all devices and CSS is used to alter the rendering of the page on the device.”
In even simpler terms — responsive websites adjust to the pixel-width of the device used by the viewer. This provides the same user experience on every device and preserves all content necessary to maintain the mobile user experience.
Mobile-First Web Design
Simply put, mobile-first web design is exactly as it sounds: sketching, prototyping and designing for mobile-first and then scaling up to larger screens from there. Mobile-first web design makes sure you provide the best mobile user experience and usability.
Mobile-first is simply a term or concept for mobile-optimized web design. As the name implies, with this strategy mobile-oriented sites are given priority, and additional elements and functionality are added as screen size increases.
Mobile-First Web Design Principles
Mobile-first web design follows a few basic principles that differ in many ways from more traditional desktop design. In contrast to more desktop web design, less emphasis is placed on content and pictures. Instead, the mobile-first process prioritizes essential functions and modules that must be fully integrated into the website.
Key Mobile-First Web Design Principles
- Less is more: focus on the bare essentials of the project
- Minimize time and energy spent on programming
- Focus on maximum performance across all mobile devices
- Provide fast access to essential information
- Cater to one-handed smartphone users
- Avoid large and unnecessary images
- Keep source code as light as possible
- Utilize on-page programming directly in HTML5
The primary focus of mobile-first web design must be developing optimal solutions for mobile devices and screen sizes. Laptop and desktop displays are of lesser importance and should be optimized according to the principle of progressive enhancement. This strategy usually involves the development of modules or grids in a smartphone format.
The next step in mobile-first design involves scaling up the website so that it is suitable for larger displays as well. This step is often referred to as progressive enhancement. In other words, the desktop is by no means ignored in a mobile-first design strategy! But businesses and product brands seeking more mobile consumers and website traffic from mobile devices must focus on their mobile-first strategy.
The Advantages of Mobile-First Web Design
Turning Weaknesses into Advantages
The main advantage of mobile-first web design is that it turns perceived setbacks into advantages. Yes, smaller devices provide less space for content and have certain formatting restrictions. But the advantage is that they leave out unimportant or distracting elements. What remains is a minified and therefore more user-friendly solution.
By making the move to a mobile-first strategy, website and business owners are better prepared for the latest developments in user behavior and expectations. At the same time, they develop a solid foundation for a successful mobile-first presence. This allows them to anticipate and quickly adapt to new mobile user expectations.
In mobile-first web design progressive enhancement refers to starting with a minimal set of elements and usability optimized for mobile devices and small screens, and progressively adding functionality and content for larger monitors. It is far easier in web design to upsize functionality and usability than it is to downsize what is there already to fit on smaller devices.
As well as providing a strong development base for larger screen sizes, mobile-first web design also provides a stronger basis for UX design. By starting with only the most essential and beneficial elements of a website mobile users will have the best mobile user experience. Then this user experience can be enhanced for larger screen sizes.
Redefining Website Usability
Designing for mobile devices requires a complete rethinking of your web design strategy. In order to provide the best possible mobile user experience, web designers have to prioritize what is actually the most useful for website visitors. Of course, creating new concepts for mobile use presents a unique host of new challenges for web designers.
Simply cramming every last available slick functionality, cool image, or additional content into a web page no longer works. Instead, mobile-first web design requires designers to develop a new understanding of mobile user expectations and user-friendliness. What exactly will provide the most value and usability to mobile consumers? That is the question you must ask yourself.
Improved Google Ranking
The fact that mobile-first web design would influence your search rankings should not come as a surprise. Google announced as much back in 2010 at the Mobile World Congress. After repeated warnings and delays, Google finally switched to mobile-first indexing in 2018.
Mobile-first indexing means that Google will look at the mobile version of a website in order to rank it before the desktop version. By adapting to mobile-first web design business owners can benefit from Google’s mobile-first index, and greatly increase their search rankings and visibility on Google.
Increased Mobile Conversions
Another benefit of mobile-first web design is that you will experience increased mobile conversions. The reason for this pretty simple. If your website makes it difficult for mobile consumers to perform required tasks, such as contacting you or purchasing your products, they will look for a website that provides a better mobile user experience.
And consumer brands better pay attention to this! While currently website conversions are still higher on desktops than on mobile devices, with desktops converting at around 3.82% and mobiles at 1.32%, this gap is slowly closing as mobile usage increases.
By following the mobile-first web design strategy product brands and businesses can greatly increase their mobile conversion rate. As the number of mobile consumers increases and trust starts to build towards mobile websites the number of mobile conversions will also increase.
Why Mobile-First Web Design Matters in 2019
Over the last decade, mobile devices have become an integral part of our daily lives. This is especially true in Asia. It is very rare to meet anyone who doesn’t own a smartphone or tablet. The rise in the use of mobile devices means the way we access the internet has also moved away from just desktops. According to Statista, in 2018 alone 52.2% of all global web traffic was via mobile phones.
This means that both business owners and web designers can no longer get away with designing for desktop users only. Instead they must adapt to mobile-first web design. If you want to maintain a relevant and up-to-date online presence you may have to rethink your entire approach to web design.
In mobile-first web design, you must consider that the needs of mobile searchers are different from those searching on a desktop or even laptop. While those searching via larger screens are probably looking for more detailed responses and additional information, mobile consumers are simply after quick information. In order to succeed you will need to design for content first.
Designing for Content
In mobile-first web design, you first must consider the content required to meet mobile user expectations. What is the single most important thing a mobile consumer needs to know? Designing this way will make the user experience a lot simpler as it will force you to reduce the use of extra functionality and elements in order to focus on that which is really essential.
This doesn’t mean that additional functionality isn’t necessary. But you must consider how the mobile user is searching and what their purpose may be. For example, a desktop user may be looking for more in-depth information and expecting full-size imagery and more white space whereas the mobile user just wants to be able to find the answer quickly.
Neglecting to consider mobile-first web design in 2019 is pretty much a virtual sin. Providing an easy experience for mobile users on a website is a priority. By designing with the user in mind you are ensuring they have an engaging and rewarding mobile user experience.
Why You Should Focus on Mobile-First Web Design
As you’ve learned in this post, mobile-first web design is the new approach to web design. It is also a crucial aspect when it comes to Search Engine Optimization and Google’s indexing and ranking preferences. So where does mobile-first web design fit into all of this? And more importantly, how can you benefit from it right now?
Internet users have shown not only that they are increasingly choosing the mobile experience, but that they want their mobile user experience to be seamless, easy and highly functional. Google has shown historically that its algorithm shifts are reactions to the behavior and the preferences of internet users. Which makes it abundantly clear that mobile-first web design is the only approach you should consider.
Mobile-first web design provides the best possible mobile user experience across all devices. Relying on older mobile-friendly design principles simply doesn’t cut it anymore. And even responsive websites will only get you so far with ever more demanding and sophisticated mobile consumers.
What Mobile Consumers Have Taught Us
In 2019 search rankings aren’t the only factor that should consider as you create your mobile user experience. Websites themselves must be designed with the mobile user in mind above all else. Designs that truly cater to the experience of the mobile user will prevail in a landscape that is shifting more and more in that direction.
If you’re a business owner, now is the time to take the plunge and create a mobile-first website for your company or product brand. If you’re a marketer or web designer, think about the benefits to the mobile user by placing the mobile user experience above all. It will pay dividends in a mobile-only future that is closer than you may think.
Wearables, IoT, & the Future of Mobile-First Design
There is one more thing I need you to consider. The future of mobile-first web design is about to get more complicated. You may have heard of IoT, or the Internet of Things. And what seemed pretty farfetched in the distant past, as in late 2017, is now commonplace. So, you need to get used to it.
Already, wearable devices like smartwatches are common among mobile users. Increasingly, in-home and in-car internet of things (IoT) devices also need the ability to display web pages. As these devices connect to the web, developers will be asked to decouple content from layout. As a result, web pages could begin to display in dozens of permutations for myriad devices. Fun, isn’t it?
Implementing Mobile-First Design Strategies on Your Website
If You Have a Desktop Only Website
Chances are you probably aren’t ranking very well to begin with. Either way, your website will still eventually be ranked and indexed with mobile-first indexing, as the desktop version of your site is the mobile version of your site. To improve search rankings, the best practice is to build a responsive website so that Google identifies your website as user-friendly to mobile searchers.
If You have Both Desktop and Mobile Websites
In the early days of the mobile age many business owners balked at the expense of developing even a mobile-friendly website. Instead, they opted for a mobile version of their site, usually running on a different domain URL. This is the most complex scenario, so here’s what you need to do:
- Make sure your mobile version and desktop version have the same content on them. Regardless of whether you have less content on your mobile site than your desktop site, the mobile site is the one that will be indexed.
- Make sure meta titles, meta descriptions and alt tags are the same on the desktop and mobile versions on your site.
- Adhere to mobile-first indexing best practices from Google
Once again, the best way to avoid any issues, not to mention potential Google penalties, is to build a mobile-first website.
If You Have a Responsive Website
Congratulations, you’re most likely in great shape! Similar to only having a desktop version, the mobile and desktop version of your website are the same, and your website is optimized to change based on the pixel width of the viewing device.
A Quick Word of Caution
Not all responsive websites are created equal. There are plenty of responsive websites that don’t do a great job visually portraying content that looks great on a desktop monitor. Make sure you carefully examine your site for any of these user experience and design issues.
Final Thoughts on Mobile-First Web Design
In 2019, mobile-first web design is more relevant than ever. Companies and product brands would do well to embrace it. Developers would do well to learn it. Mobile-first design is only going to become more important. As the number of mobile consumers increases so will the number and variety of mobile devices.
Not only that, but mobile consumers are evolving as well. What was considered an acceptable mobile user experience only a few short months ago is no longer going to cut it come this holiday season. If you want your online presence to be relevant and informative to ever more demanding and sophisticated mobile consumers, you need to keep working at it.
So, this is all up to you, the business owner. Yes, of course you can keep sticking your head in the sand and keep believing that “my consumers are not on mobile phones.” But all that approach will get you is sand up your nose and in your eyes! Study after study have shown that mobile consumption is on the rise. The mobile genie is out of the bottle. And you will never ever get it back into the bottle again. Mobile-first web design is your only alternative. We are here to help!
Need Help with Mobile-First Web Design?
And if you are still not sure how you can benefit from mobile-first web design, don’t worry! Simply reach out and contact us. Our expert team will listen to you, answer your questions, and determine the best way to implement mobile-first web design strategies on your website. It is one of our specialties, after all!
Is Your Website Meeting Mobile User Expectations?
Have you focused on mobile-first web design for your business or product brand? If so, how has this helped you better meet your mobile user expectations? If not, what is the biggest obstacle you face getting a mobile-first online presence? Do you have other problems with your business website design? Please feel free to let us know so our audience can benefit as well and grab our feed so you don’t miss our next post! And feel free to share our post with your audience!
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