Three Reasons a “Mobile First” Philosophy is Critical to Achieving Your Business Goals

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At the 1961 Masters Tournament, Arnold Palmer held a one stroke lead over Gary Player as he walked off the 18th tee.  On the trip up the fairway he allowed himself to talk to a friend who congratulated Palmer on his win.

Even though Palmer knew he needed to concentrate on finishing the hole, he couldn’t help but think about the green jacket that would soon be on his shoulders.

Palmer bogeyed the hole and lost the Masters by one stroke to Player.

Too often we know exactly the right path to take (and the right decisions to make), but fail to follow through for one reason or another.

What does this have to do with mobile responsive design?

Every day new studies and statistics are reporting …

For most of us, I think the message has been heard loud and clear.

Mobile is the future (and present)

Mobile is obviously a very big part of the present and future web, and if your business is not utilizing (or preparing to utilize) a mobile strategy that works, you can expect a swift demise into obscurity.

Developers, designers and content creators are realizing the power of a “mobile first” philosophy, and they’re finding enormous benefits coming their way

My websites run faster developing Mobile First. I have recoded websites responsively and mobile first and have often times reduced my load time by 30-40%.

My clients understand content priority and visual hierarchy easier and better. They can all relate to the frustration of not getting the content they want on their mobile browsers and I can easily use this frustration to convince them to reconsider the desktop experience.

My wireframing has gone faster. Since the clients now know which information is more important to them and their users, I can take that and turn it into larger screen wireframe with them that they understand.

So if mobile is so important and intent on world domination, shouldn’t we be thinking differently how we build our websites and produce our content?

If the world is making this shift that favors mobile devices over desktop stations, it would make sense that we prioritize our efforts with the mobile audience in mind.

This was made abundantly clear to me after reading Luke Wroblewski’s book which is aptly titled, Mobile First.

The premise of Luke’s writing is that we should be thinking about the mobile user first, not only because we’ll reap the rewards of mobile growth today, but it will also prepare us for the explosive growth that is predicted in the future.

Additionally, adopting a mobile first philosophy will force us to focus and prioritize due to the constraints of mobile devices, and it will allow us to deliver innovative experiences using new capabilities available to mobile as they come online.

1. A mobile first philosophy taps into current growth and prepares you for the future

Wroblewski recently wrote up an astonishing comparison on his site.

On an average day (as of this writing), approximately 371,000 babies are born, while over half a million iOS devices are sold. And …

700,000 Android devices are activated. 200,000 Nokia devices are used for the first time and 143,000 Blackberry smartphones make their way into a new user’s hands.

This brings the total of smartphones entering the World per day to about 1.45M devices, compared to 317,124 human births.

And that’s not all …

Other statistics in his book are even more convincing for developing a mobile first philosophy, because they show that not only are people buying mobile devices, but audiences are actually interacting with web sites through a mobile device.

People are not playing Angry Birds and using Facebook all the time.  They’re visiting content-rich websites.

Yelp is a very popular review service and if you would look at their traffic numbers you would see that only 7% of their total audience uses their mobile products.  Without any further investigation, you’d be tempted to scoff and declare that the time for mobile just isn’t here. But if you delve a little deeper, you find that that those 7% are responsible for 35% of their all of their searches across all of their products.

Another example given is that of the real estate service Zillow. Wroblewski points out that Zillow’s customers are viewing active real estate listings 45% more often from mobile devices, compared to their desktop site.

Now just so you don’t think that this philosophy is just for service related sites, one study revealed that the average smartphone user visits up to 25 websites a day and the the top 50% of those sites account for less than half of all mobile visits.

So, its very likely your site is part of this mobile growth phenomenon as well.

2. A mobile first philosophy forces you to focus on what’s important

Even though the mobile landscape has evolved immensely the past few years, the environment in which it exists still holds many constraints as to what’s possible in development and design.

But like any good creator will tell you, constraints foster creativity and problem solving.

In his book, Wroblewski identifies several constraints that are currently in place for mobile devices that can actually enhance a user’s mobile experience … including screen size and the performance of the mobile device.

The smaller screen sizes available to a mobile devices force designers to eliminate the irrelevant and unhelpful aspects of their design.

Too often, companies want to fill up every available pixel and ultimately end up with a cluttered site that’s hard to navigate and use.

But when developing for a mobile device, the loss of screen real estate forces the design and development teams to focus on what’s really important because there isn’t room for any element that has questionable value.

Wroblewski rightly points out that in order to run your business effectively you really need to understand your customers and your business. When you design for a mobile device first it forces you to get to that point.

As illustrated in the book Southwest Airlines is perfect example. On their full website they have a ton of advertisements, calls to action, and a number of links that the vast majority of users don’t need.

On their mobile app Southwest makes the decision to focus in on exactly what their customer’s need. They provide a clean and easy way to interact with the services they provide.

This laser-like focus keeps the user engaged, happy and coming back.

In addition to screen size, the performance of a user’s mobile network has a significant impact on how they interact with web sites. What this means is that anything that can be done to eliminate performance issues should be done.

Again, this forces the designer and developer to consider what their users really need. If large images and robust javascript libraries are taken out of the equation, we’re not forced to compromise, but to innovate and focus on what’s truly important.

3. Embracing a mobile first philosophy allows use of new capabilities

Wroblewski makes his final point by stating:

The natural constraints of mobile devices, networks, and usage patterns help focus and simplify mobile experiences. But designing for mobile isn’t just about embracing limitations — it’s also about extending what you can do.

People use their mobile devices everywhere. Because of that, new opportunities are available to meet the needs of users.

A prime example is location detection. A mobile device can more accurately pinpoint a user’s exact location than a desktop computer, and can be used to deliver relevant information about their specific location or surroundings.

Just the other day I wanted to rent a game from Redbox but didn’t want to drive around to each location to find out where it was.  Using their mobile website, Redbox quickly pinpointed my location and gave me a list of the closest kiosks that had the game I wanted to rent.

Rather than giving me a list of all the places in the greater area that I had to mine for data, Redbox using a mobile first philosophy did the work for me, based on location data it acquired.

Along with using new capabilities available today, a mobile first philosophy allows you to position yourself to be on the cutting edge of upcoming trends that will be used in mobile devices, like NFC, intelligent awareness, and whatever other new tools coming down the road that haven’t even been dreamed up yet.

So where do we go from here?

First, read Luke’s book.

Then, start to think creatively about how you can implement a mobile strategy with your content. Of course, a smart and simple way to lay down a firm mobile foundation for your site and business is by using one of our many mobile responsive Genesis child themes.

Don’t rest on past success, ignoring the reality of the present and future.

If you’re not embracing a mobile first philosophy with your content online, you’re already being left behind …

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Reader Comments (27)

  1. says

    Great piece Josh. Among the many reasons why focusing on mobile is so important, I have always been most compelled by the “it forces you to focus on what’s important” angle. It’s so true. Designing and developing for the small screen compels you to remove anything that isn’t necessary. It’s a perspective you might not get designing for a bigger screen, but keeping it in mind – and using it to simplify the non-mobile experience – is likely to make the user’s experience on non-mobile devices simpler and better.

  2. says

    Responsive is a very flawed concept as people use devices differently.

    On a desktop, you may be happy with a PDF white paper as your click through, on a mobile you’d probably prefer a short video, or a presentation you can simply flick through. On a desktop, it is easy to have multiple tabs and windows, on a mobile that may be a lot more difficult – so the flow is different.

    The power of your presentation is different by device – large high-impact graphics may be lost at small screen sizes and you have to make up for less screen space with more action to make an impact.

    How they are used is also different. If you are, for example, on a retailer’s site, you may be looking for the nearest outlet. By linking with GPS, the retailer can give that to the mobile browser as primary screen, complete with directions – but that’s much less useful on a desktop, where a printable address and map may be much more useful (or an e-commerce site with home delivery).

    Mobile sites have had a bad press as they have been so cut down, but Android is now powerful enough and screens are large enough for a less patronising experience.

    And don’t forget the Tablet. Many business users do their work research while relaxing with a tablet. The desktop may be their work screen (no sound, basic graphics), but the tablet is where they find out new ideas and go into buying and researching mode. A cut down mobile experience is likely to disappoint, yet they want the multi-media experience their work PC doesn’t have.

    Last point – people don’t use websites to learn about the company and the offer any more – they find out from friends instead. Boring “What We Do” sites are useless, on desktop, tablet or mobile.

      • says

        I have to say I’ve had a good experience making my website responsive. My client base (ages 40+) may not be as mobile-oriented as the those in their 20’s and 30’s, but the direction is clearly going mobile when I see people looking deeply into their smartphone screens in trains, buses, ferries, and cafes. You article makes a significant point about the focus and simplicity inherent to viewing on a small screen. It’s less distracting and forces us to use our creativity more imaginatively because less space is like lower real estate inventory – values go up. I took a big gulp when I designed for mobile-readiness, but I’m glad I did, and I’m still open to improving it and responding to the technology changes brought about by wildly creative imaginations. (btw, Brian, how would I post a comment that’s not a reply? thanks!)

    • Bill says

      I’ve noticed many businesses are using a responsive design on their website and they use a separate mobile site also. They have a button on the mobile site that directs to the website. Using both methods to serve content makes sense. The mobile is used to take quick action so you don’t have to read through a bunch of fluff and the responsive is used to deliver the fluffy content.

      We’ve been using Genesis to develop responsive sites for mobile and it works great!

      Great article Josh. I live in a country where there’s a lot of poor people. Many live in tin sheds and barely scrape by day to day, but what’s surprising is that most of them have smartphones and many of them more have than one.
      Mobile has taken off in Central America like wildfire.

  3. says

    I like how you point out that developing for mobile devices can often lead to more efficient desktop webpages. Organizing content and having the most critical aspects at the top of the page should help visitors to find what they want easily.

  4. says

    Mobile is not just changing content, it is also changing business operations.

    Surveys Show…
    42% of customers with mobile access expect a response to their questions within 60 minutes.
    57% expect the response nights and weekends the same as daytime hours.

    New Standards for Business Hours
    If your mobile access customers have these expectations for your customer services, how are you going to meet them? How can you afford to “be open” on full-time basis? Remember, 76% of the mobile users said that if they have a bad mobile experience with business, they will not return. How can you afford not to be open to meet the new customer expectations?

    Mobile access is the next great small business paradigm shift.

  5. says

    Nice one Josh- great article and also good follow up comments. I have to support Peter Johnston’s ‘Responsive is a flawed concept’ assumption.
    For our website we’ve been determined to ensure it is responsive across all technology but the key issue is how people use mobiles as well as their increased use. Each bit of web tech needs to be targeted according to consumer behaviour and preferences (such as, video vs Ebook vs podcast etc).
    Academics such as SmartInsight’s Dave Chaffey detail the latest stats about mobile usage and then encourage a tailored approach to reaching very specific audience segments, determined as a result of online market research. Danyl Bosomworth of Dave Chaffey’s SmartInsights blogging team gave the latest stats on 29 April 2013 at .
    @Business_Mapper we’d love to hear from people who’d like to share further evidence-based insights that will help online small businesses grow.

    • says


      Responsive design was never intended to be the silver bullet that solves all of our content and display issues. What it does very well is to provide a solution that works fantastic for most people. When you couple the “mobile first” philosophy with responsive design you have a solution that works well for almost everyone.

      What so many people leave out and the reason I wrote the article is the concept of putting “mobile first.”

      And obviously you create your site and content to meet the needs of your audience. If responsive design doesn’t meet the needs of your particular audience then it doesn’t work for you but that doesn’t mean that “responsive design” is an overall flawed concept for everyone. Data collected so far actually shows that responsive design works very well for most sites.

      • says

        Thanks for the feedback Josh.

        I take your point about responsive and mobile first working together for best results in some cases. We’ve shared your post on social to raise awareness amongst businesses.

        Hope it helps, Lindsey

  6. says

    Josh – I’ve heard a lot of people talk about the importance of mobile, but you laid out the arguments very well. I made the decision to switch to Genesis and Generate theme about a year ago, and I did so in part because I knew my blog would work much better on a smartphone. I haven’t been disappointed – it’s been a vast improvement from my previous theme which had almost no responsive design.

  7. says

    I couldn’t quite follow the Arnold Palmer metaphor, but did like the mobile discussion. I find myself consuming more and more content on mobile devices. If it doesn’t display properly, I move on to something that does. Sort of like Darwinism of the Internet…

  8. says

    As much as we may not want it to, the mobile experience permeates our lives as no other technology has (I would posit). You definitely want your business to do the same. Great considerations, here.

  9. says

    A lot of developers don’t seem to get it right. Its all about delivering the most important content that you put first on iPhone.

  10. says

    Josh – nice post. There is no doubt that a “mobile first” approach calls for a focus on what’s most critical for performance and activity from “handheld” web visitors. What’s most critical, however, is understanding that “user experience” is as much about the contextual moment and situation that a visitor lands on one’s website, which can be initiated by an offline (“traditional”) ad or call-to-action.

    Knowing the context in which someone visits a web page requires brands to deliver more relevant, responsive and “reactive” web content. That’s where truly meaningful and personalized experiences drive greater conversions and actions.

  11. says

    So True! Mobile isn’t an option like it was a few years ago. Many visitors are using mobile platforms and not developing for mobile can eliminate them from your audience.

  12. says

    Thanks for the excellent article, Josh. At my company we find that for some clients responsive design is the answer (esp. if we are building a new site) but for so many businesses in our sphere developing a separate mobile website is a better, faster, and less costly solution, at least for the time being.

    A lot of clients think they need an app built, so I wrote an article on Mobile Website vs. Mobile App, Which is Best? if you care to read it, let me know your thoughts. Also, a lot of great data on this one, too: 10 Incredible Facts about Mobile that you Probably didn’t Know:

  13. says

    You hit the nail on the head when you said “Mobile is the new future and (Present). People are definitely downloading rich content and people want it quick. Businesses have and will continue to find innovative ways to capitalize on this and jump on board!

  14. says

    Great post and so true! I can see my site has fallen behind and I need to do some rework. Its absolutely true that smart phones are the way of the present and the future. Its like anything else, if there’s an easy way to do that how you’ll do it. So by making things difficult for my customers easier, I just driving them away.

  15. says

    I’m really liking everything I hear about the mobile first philosophy. My next site will truly be done mobile first and I’m looking forward to it. Just out of curiosity, with so many of the mobile devices in use being apple products – 2x images and all the retina stuff is pretty important?

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