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Mobile-First Design: The Best Practices

Bohdana Muzyka
Lead Business Analyst at TechMagic, with a background in Project Management and QA, mentor, and speaker. Passionate about Business Analysis and Product Design.
Mobile-First Design: The Best Practices

The modern world of online and digital spaces have expanded significantly in the past few decades, evolving and improving its reach to users of various backgrounds, abilities, and economic status.

As the world becomes more reliant on technology and the connectivity of the world wide web, developers and companies alike are seeking ways to ensure that their platforms are accessible across multiple devices to match the needs of their consumers.

To give you a complete understanding of mobile-first design, this blog article will talk about the fundamentals of this approach, its importance, and ways on how you can apply the best practices of mobile-first design to your company’s web pages and online platforms.

What is Mobile-First Design?

Mobile-first design means that web developers start the product design from the mobile end, which exists with more restrictions. They then expand its features and translate them towards a tablet and desktop version or other devices that may need a different set of dimensions.

The concept of mobile-first design encapsulates two sub-concepts: Responsive Web Design (RWD) and Progressive Advancements and Graceful Degradation, which assist in ensuring that platforms achieve a “mobile-first” approach when creating online and digital platforms.

These concepts and methodologies come hand-in-hand in order for developers and web managers to achieve a mobile-first design. Let’s talk about both concepts to give you a better grasp of mobile-first design.

Mobile-first vs responsive retrofitting

Responsive Web Design

Responsive web design (RWD) is a web design method that allows active and live web pages to automatically adapt and fit various dimensions that are required for different devices. As the webpage translates to other devices, the design and arrangement also alter slightly to ensure that the user comfortably sees the contents on the screen.

Incorporating RWD into your web page design significantly reduces the need for users to pan, pinch, zoom, and scroll while browsing the web.

Progressive Advancement & Graceful Degradation

These concepts first are usually placed before the incorporation of responsive web design. When creating a web design or application interface display that caters to different screen sizes, developers draft customized versions of the products for different platforms such as tablets, web, mobile, smartwatches, etc. If you notice, your browser or application on your laptop or personal computer (PC) appears different in comparison to the ones displayed on your smartphone or other handheld devices.

  • Progressive advancement refers to the building of a version for a relatively lower browser that includes the most basic functions and features. This lower browser typically means that of the mobile phones. Once finished, developers tend to the advanced version for tablets or PC where developers include more complicated effects, animations, interactions, and other features to improve user experience.
  • Graceful Degradation, on the other hand, starts its product design process from a more advanced end, such as desktops, and builds a version that possesses fully rounded features from the get-go. Developers then continue to create degraded versions of them and apply them across various platforms such as tablets, mobile phones, etc.

These concepts allow developers and web managers to carefully depict their web designs or application while ensuring that the features across various devices are met to produce a high-quality customer experience.

Why is Mobile-First Design important?

Fostering a mobile-first approach when designing your web pages is a crucial aspect to consider. The world is constantly generating new innovative technology, which is becoming more handheld and mobile to cater to the fast-paced movement in today's society.

Incorporating a mobile-first design is imperative due to the exploding growth of mobile use over the years. Let’s look at the statistics for mobile usage in recent years:

In October 2020, approximately 4.66 billion people were active mobile internet users, while 3.6 billion were social media users. In the United States (US), consumers spent around 90% of their mobile time on applications and mobile internet, resulting in a growth of 504% in daily media consumption since 2011. Additionally, over 76% of US citizens use their phones to respond to emails and conduct online messaging while watching TV.

Mobile internet usage statistics

As you can see, these statistics show the impact of how heavily reliant people nowadays are on their mobile devices and even use them as a main source of communication, web suffering, and online interaction.

The Difference Between Mobile First and Responsive Web Design

The difference between RWD and mobile-first design mainly trickles down to how the developer approaches your website.

  • A mobile-first design is an approach that covers all aspects of the web design from its planning, to the way its design tandems with desktop and other versions of the website. This allows for the developer to create proactive changes to the overall design to ensure that all platforms perform the same and provide the highest quality customer experience.
  • A responsive web design, however, is a more reactive approach to web design. This means that developers and web managers tend to alter the design in a more fluid and flexible approach when fitting on other dimensions.

While both designs ensure that consumer needs are met and are accessible across all devices, a mobile-first design approach is ideal due to the considerations taken into the planning and the design phase.

The Connection Between Mobile-First Design and Accessibility

Mobile-first design and accessibility have the tendency to overlap, which translates mobile-first design to become more accessible in comparison to other web design approaches. Here are a few easy the two can overlap:

  • Mobile and Portable Device Friendly. A Mobile-first design takes importance in fostering a design that best caters to being more readable on smaller screens, such as phones and tablets. This allows room to make your webpage more accessible to users, making it easier for them to access the web through the use of their mobile devices.
  • Hierarchy of Information. Since mobile devices have smaller screens, developers and web managers usually tend to place key content and content assets in front to ensure that users interact with them first.

Ensuring that you secure accessibility and ease of use on your website is crucial to achieving a successful online platform. Apart from planning and using methodologies that help foster a well-rounded website, you can also take advantage of tools that can provide insight into user experience and how to incorporate features that give a better customer experience.

Mobile-first vs accessibility

Google CrUX (Chrome User Experience Report)

The Chrome User Experience Report is a series of online tools that provides experience metrics on the experience of real-world chrome users across popular and well-known websites online. It is powered by real user measurement of key user experience metrics across the public web.

The data collected come from users who have allows Google to sync their browsing history, have not set up a Sync paraphrase, and have usage statistic reporting enables. The data gathered can be viewed through the following platforms:

  • PageSpeed Insights. URL-level user experience metrics for popular URLs identify by Google’s web crawlers.
  • Public Google BigQuery project. This aggregates user experience metrics by origin and is split across multiple dimensions.
  • CrUX Dashboard on Data Studio. Here, you can track the origin’s user experience trends.
  • CrUX API. This provides metrics by origin and URLs.

Google Core Web Vitals

Another Google tool that can assist you to track and getting insight about your website is its Core Web Vitals report. This platform allows you to take a look at the performance of your existing web pages, allowing you to spot flaws, bugs, and other functions and maximize their operations overall.

The Core Web Vitals reports provide you with data on how your pages are performing, based on real-world usage data. Taking advantage of this tool is imperative to give you an idea of how your webpage is currently performing. It shows URL performance grouped by  the following aspects:

  • Status
  • Metric Type
  • URL Group

This report only shows indexed URLs based on three metrics: Largest Contentful Paint (LCP), First Input Delay (FID),  and Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS). These three metrics dictate whether your web page and URL performance is good, needs improvement, or poor. Google identifies and ranks your URL by providing URL status. Their criteria are as follows:

  • A URL on mobile with Poor FID but Needs improvement LCP is labeled Poor on mobile.
  • A URL on mobile with Needs improvement LCP but Good FID is labeled Needs improvement on mobile.
  • A URL on mobile with Good FID and CLS but no LCP data is considered Good on mobile.
  • A URL with Good FID, LCP, and CLS on mobile and Needs improvement FID, LCP, and CLS on a desktop is Good on mobile and Needs improvement on desktop.

It is best to note that if a URL does not have a minimum amount of reporting data within these metrics, it is likely to be omitted from the report.

Implementing A Mobile-First Design Approach

Now that we have a thorough understanding of the concepts of Mobile-First design, it is time to discuss how to implement these practices into your web design phase.

When crafting your website, it is best to ensure that communication between the design team, web managers, and web developers are consistent and robust to foster an efficient and clear end result.

#1: Creating a Content Inventory

Prior to crafting, developers and designers must discover all possible needs and requirements of an end-user when interacting with your website or application on their mobile devices. Features such as operating hours, locations, contact numbers, drop-down menus, directories, and so on must be taken into account in order to make a holistic design.

Mobile-first usually translates to content first. When identifying which content is ideal to be placed on the primary pages of your website. Having a good mobile version usually translates to a better version across other devices.

Before proceeding with your design, it is best to bank, sort, and list all of your available content on a spreadsheet or document. This allows you to identify which content to include in various devices, and which are better left out.

#2: Identifying A Visual Hierarchy

Once you have sorted out your content, it is time to craft a visual hierarchy to guide you along your design process in your mobile-first web design. Visual content such as logos, themes, typography, videos, and other types of media that contribute to the overall design must be considered in the visual hierarchy. Here are the things to consider when creating a visual hierarchy:

  • Use size to enhance or reduce visibility
  • Color and contrast
  • Use complementary typeface categories and styles
  • Font sizing
  • Make room for white space
  • Ensure a proper design structure
  • Avoid large graphics
  • Enlarge touch objects

These are a few of the many aspects you should consider when designing a mobile-first website. Taking the time to look into these aspects can significantly help you identify and produce a well-rounded design for your website.

Although primarily darted toward mobile use, developers can take the base of this design and expand it further through tablets, PCs, and other devices.

How we built

an HR tech app that was acquired by StepStone

Learn more

#3: Combining Function and Form: Creating Mobile, Tablet, and Desktop Designs

Now it’s time to combine both aspects into one melting pot. As a developer or web manager, it is essential to keep in mind that users are likely to want to enjoy a seamless navigation experience while absorbing an aesthetically pleasing design and content. Combining function and form is essential to producing a well-rounded website.

  • Mobile Design  
    Designers and web developers must take into consideration that mobile design is limited to smaller screens. When crafting a design for mobile devices, developers must consider a content-first approach that would place vital and important details on the page first.

Let’s say that we are creating a design for a restaurant, usually, customers are likely to look for the menu, location, operation hours, or even a contact number to be able to call for reservations. Keeping this in mind, developers should place such content at the very top of their mobile design.

  • Tablet Design
    Although similar to the mobile design, tablets have a significantly larger screen of real estate, allowing designers and developers to place more information on the page. Here they can refer to the content bank mentioned before and add more details.

Following our restaurant website example, designers can leverage more space by adding more functionalities such as a snippet of the menu, the specials, and reviews, along with the existing content placed on the mobile version.

  • PC or Desktop Design
    Moving into the desktop design, developers have significantly more room to play with the design of the website and provide as much content as possible. Desktop design enables you to provide more content such as blog posts, a full feature of the menu, a restaurant gallery, a review page, an about us page, and many more.

The Best Practices for Mobile-First Design

Crafting a website possesses its own challenges. That said, there are a number of practices that development teams must be aware of to ensure that your website is fully maximized and caters to the needs of your consumers. Here, we listed several best practices on mobile-first design to help guide you as you incorporate this approach into building your website.

Best practices for mobile-first design

#1: Prioritize Content

It is well known that “Content is King”, and for good reason. Ensuring that you prioritize crafting high-quality content and incorporating them into your website can significantly drive your platform to success. Having a good collection of content allows you to attract more customers while reinforcing your credibility and rank on popular search engines such as Google and Bing.

#2: Ensure an Intuitive Navigation

Nothing ruins a platform better than having a confusing and messy navigation system. Proving intuitive navigation allows you to deliver a neat and clean user experience on mobile devices. Leveraging features such as navigation drawers, or an interactive sitemap, can help your users tread through your website easily and more effectively.

#3: Avoid Unnecessary and Disruptive Popups

Mobile devices have spatial constraints that limit a user's field of view when interacting with your web page. Having unnecessary popups and ads taking over their screen will likely disrupt their experience on your website, resulting in a negative customer experience.

#4: Always Perform Beta Testing before Going Live

Testing your application or website before going live is one of the most crucial and essential parts of creating an online platform. This is also one of the most effective ways to ensure that your website is delivering optimal user experiences across devices.

Doing so can help you spot flaws and issues within their design and address them before it reaches your customers. Moreover, this allows you the chance to verify the website renders response and translates properly across mobile, tablets, and desktops.

Best Tools to Use for Mobile-First Design

Here are the best tools to use when creating a mobile-first design for your website.

  • Google’s Mobile-First Friendly Test

Mobile-Friendly Test is a tool by Google that identifies what score your website has according to Google Search calculation parameters. It is a set of factors that help determine the level of convenience your website’s mobile version provides to end-users.

  • Gator Website Builder

If you’re looking for inspiration on how to design your web page, or simply need the necessary tools to help you design your website, you can take a look at Gator Website Builder. It houses over 200 templates of mobile-responsive designs, allowing you to easily craft your own mobile-friendly website.

  • WordPress Themes

WordPress is one of the most popular and well-known CMS platforms worldwide. With WordPress Themes, you can set up a mobile-friendly website without going through coding yourself. It also offers a large range of free and paid themes and templates.

  • Adaptive Images

As mentioned above, multimedia is a powerful tool to have within one’s website. Adaptive Images allows your website to detect the user’s screen size and automatically resizes the images laid out on your web page.  Additionally, it can speed up the load time of your images, which can decrease UI lag.

  • Bootstrap

Bootstrap is another popular front-end open toolkit for designing mobile-first websites. It features Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) variables and mixins, a responsive grid system, and extensive prebuilt components that expedites your website creation process.

List of Top Web UI and Design Systems Engineers

If you wish to read on, check out the top and best design systems that exist today.

Final Thoughts

Fostering a mobile-first approach to product creation and website building allows companies to take a better look at the user experience design services and features they offer to their clients. Given that the world is rapidly becoming a more fast-paced and mobile-heavy society, it is beneficial to ensure that your mobile applications and platforms are in their best shape as users are likely to interact with your brand through said platforms.

Moreover, it allows you to grasp your product holistically and sure thorough and clear planning on the products and services you offer to your consumers while ensuring that their demands are met.

How we built

an E-commerce analytics app using JS and Serverless on AWS

Learn more

FAQ about Mobile-First Design

Here are the most common queries regarding the mobile-first design approach

  1. When did mobile-first design start?

    The concept of mobile-first design first surfaced in 2010. Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt announced this idea at a conference that the company would be focusing on mobile users for their design practices.

  2. What is mobile-first design?

    It is simply the concept where web designers and developers begin product design for mobile devices first before expanding to larger-screened devices such as tablets and PC.

  3. Why is mobile-first design important?

    Incorporating a mobile-first design approach allows designers to start on smaller screens while working their way up and focus on the core functions of their product.

  4. What is the mobile-first strategy?

    A mobile-first strategy refers to the approach where developers shape business products and platforms with mobile users in mind. This is where businesses prioritize mobile apps and mobile web capabilities over desktops and other devices.

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