Mobile first design should start like an episode of A&E’s TV show Hoarders finishes with some asking the basic questions around need vs. want. Taking a de-cluttering philosophy and applying it to the web. But instead of picking up each pair of socks in your bureau and asking yourself, “Do I love this? Will this bring me joy?” you look at each element on your screen and ask, “Do users really need this?” And if they do, can they find it when they visit from the tiny device in their pocket? In appropriately simple terms: every item you own will be thrown away unless you can think of a compelling reason why it should stay.
User-centered design done right, brings the most critical information and interface elements to the fore and advocates for getting rid of the rest.
But does a mobile first design approach take tidying up a bit too far? Mobile first means making design decisions based on the requirements for mobile minimalism then scaling up for desktop presentation. Does this approach help or hurt users who arrive via the desktop and expect an experience that is optimized for that environment, not merely stretched to fill the bigger screen. Small changes can make a big difference. For example, do desktop users have to click inside tiny menus to reveal navigation that should be front and center for them to read? On a mobile screen, a hamburger menu can seem like a window overlooking beautiful gardens. On the desktop, this same design element can seem like mystery meat navigation that hides all the site’s riches until a user clicks or hovers to activate it.
It’s not enough to design for mobile and simply scale up to fill the bigger screen. Designers must make deliberate decisions so that the desktop is as rich and useful as mobile.
The Mobile Tipping Point
Mobile and tablet internet usage exceeded desktop for the first time less than two years ago, so while the mobile usage tipping point has finally been achieved, we have certainly not reached a point where designing for desktop users could be considered passé or an ancillary priority. Another important thing to keep in mind when deciding whether or not to take a mobile first design approach is that mobile internet use still skews somewhat younger. The penetration of mobile usage diminishes slightly with each age cohort above the youngest, most digitally savvy users. If your company’s design is anything short of stellar for desktop use or awkwardly mobile in a non-mobile environment you risk alienating users who are likely a critical contingent of your overall audience. This is particularly true in an enterprise environment where users as a whole skew older.
The Best Solution
The Best solution is a solution that never forgets there are two sides to the design coin. By all means create a design that elegantly scales to the smallest viewing environment, but then also make sure that as it scales up it also optimizes for the copious (by comparison) real estate available on the desktop. Don’t give desktop users crumbs simply because crumbs are all that fit in your pocket. No single strategy wins if it diminishes the experience of a significant portion of your users. That’s not good UX, even if it’s elegant design in one environment or another.