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Thoughts on “Mobile First”

by Danny Brian  |  February 8, 2012  |  2 Comments

Did you hear? More smartphones than PCs were sold in 2011. To add insult to injury, PCs as counted here includes tablets, which now make up 15% of PC sales.

Among the analysts covering application development, we’ve have had a lot of discussion lately on the development practice known as “Mobile First”. The recent conversations centered largely around this article on Forbes concerning the development of ESPN’s video applications, and their own use of the Mobile First concept. Opinions among the analysts vary on the subject. Any practice with “first” in its title is rightfully suspect, because on the surface, it implies a universal best practice or silver bullet with no context on what is actually occurring inside an organization. But on a closer look, this is a pretty common-sense approach to designing web applications.

Luke Wroblewski coined the term in this post, and has now written a book by the same name, which I finished  a few days ago. Some takeaways:

  • The mobile explosion is in the books. It’s likely that in the near future, you’ll have more potential mobile users than desktop users. Why would you want to alienate them?
  • Designing for mobile imposes constraints. Constraint is a good thing for the user experience, because it forces you to evaluate the value and priority of your use cases.
  • The new capabilities for mobile (geolocation, touch, phone integration, cameras, accelerometers) can support new and innovative use cases. You can’t take advantage of them if you start with desktop use cases. (Of course, you can’t easily adapt the resulting application for the desktop, either.)
  • Content is more important than navigation on mobile. It needs to feature even more prominently. Navigation has to be streamlined, expected UI behaviors need to be obvious, and actions should be highly contextual.
  • Progressive enhancement — scaling a web app’s layout and features to suit the accessing device — can be an effective way to adapt an application to multiple platforms.

When a team sets out to build the client side of a web application, they have to start somewhere. Historically, that meant building for the desktop, and later adapting the application with new templates to server a mobile-friendly interface. This approach rarely delivered positive results, in part because the use cases for the application were created for the desktop. You’ve seen these in the wild when you land on a web site with a mobile phone: They’re easier to read and use, but don’t offer much by way of value or even enable the features you want to access. Great mobile web applications are designed specifically for mobile. How well those results can be adapted for non-mobile devices is debatable, and depends largely on the type of application and mobile features that were used.

It’s worth noting that the concept is finding its way into specific implementations for application development frameworks. Some are using the jQuery mobile libraries to enable easier progressive enhancement. More on that another time.

To be clear, we’re talking about web applications here. You might think, “well we’re doing native app development, so this doesn’t apply.” However, if you have a web site (and you probably do — check on it, at least), you have a web application. If you have a URL that can be accessed from a mobile web browser, then that URL is getting shared via emails, IMs, tweets, and other sites. Are mobile users who follow that URL getting a positive impression of your brand? Your chances at “yes” are far better if you designed the app specifically for mobile, whether you tackle it first or not.

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Danny Brian
Research VP
4 years at Gartner
21 years IT industry

Danny Brian covers presentation layer technologies, tools and techniques - the stuff people interact with on endpoint devices, and the ways to make it great. Read Full Bio.

Thoughts on Thoughts on “Mobile First”

  1. Amit Kumar says:

    Mobile applications are now ready to battle with heavy PC applications and will gain good share in future, and this will increase the innovations in their areas, which will come up as one of the Top Priority for CIOs.

    The flood of Light weight OS from Apple, Google, Microsoft for the coming Tablets & iPads can be expected

    Also, these Mobile Technologies will be the attractive area to the CIOs in coming 3 years, at least. And this will be in tune with organization’s infrastructure concerns as well.

  2. It is definitely a sign of the times, as we move away from the ubiquitous desktop increasingly towards mobiles. Very soon the majority of users will be looking at internal and external content through a hand-held device. Enterprises are under-prepared for this shift and need to make changes not only to the IT infrastructure and processes end but also more importantly address cultural and mind-set changes. To see the relevance of this in retail industry check out this white paper that talks about mobile commerce and smart phone applicability for retailers. –”

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