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The Web Design Debate: Mobile-First or Desktop-First?

By Pete Czech

The Web Design Debate: Mobile-First or Desktop-First?New Possibilities Group

This week, I want to focus on something that comes up all-too-often on calls I have with potential customers. It’s the idea of mobile-first web design. I’ve heard this from so many prospects, which is something that I consider somewhat shocking. I think what bothers me the most about this is that the noise for so long has indicated that you should always proceed with the process of design from a mobile-first perspective. The industry has for some reason made this a hard and fast rule – something that makes experts cringe. In my 20 years in digital, there are very few hard and fast rules. Of course, some things are common sense, no-brainers like not putting screen doors on submarines - har, har. However, in reality, the world is full of gray areas, places where it takes expertise and judgment to navigate to a proper solution. Mobile-first development is yet another example of nuance, an area where the answer isn’t necessarily as obvious as you may think.

So, rather than take a hard-and-fast position and recommending one approach over another, I’m going to only show you when you SHOULD, or SHOULDN’T utilize the mobile-first web design philosophy.

When To Employ Mobile-First Web Design

Data Justifies It

Data is the number one factor you should consider when undergoing a design project. Not only should analytics help you figure out how well your website is performing, what content is consumed, and all sorts of user metrics, but it should also give you a ton of insight into how your users utilize your website. If you have had any analytics on your site, most likely you can pull a report that details the technology that visitors are using to access your site. This data indicates more than if it’s just a mobile visitor or not, but even down to the operating system, browser and browser version.

If you are analyzing your site and see that mobile traffic is well under that of desktop, and the trend indicates that the gap isn’t closing, then there is no reason to consider a mobile-first approach. However, if the analytics show that the gap is either closing or relatively closed, given where we are in the advent of mobile technology, it may be time to focus more effort and consideration on your mobile experience.

Case in point… I am shocked to say that the traffic to our agency website is 85% desktop. So for us, as an agency, it doesn’t make much sense to design mobile-first. Obviously, for us, the mobile experience is critical – if we can’t do a good job on mobile for our customers than why hire us? However, should we lay out our content and conversion optimization tactics around mobile first? The data doesn’t support that.

I did some quick analysis of some of our customers and noticed just how different usage patterns are these days. With a few exceptions, most B2B companies are still desktop-prevalent. Interestingly, the opposite goes for B2C, where we see mobile as the dominant medium. Again, not a rule that is set in stone, but this is something worth researching. Of course, like anything else, there are some outliers, which I’ll review below when we discuss demographics.

To reiterate, if you read nothing more of this post, keep in mind that analytics should determine your approach above and beyond any other factor!

Your Company Attracts Mobile Users

A secondary factor to consider is the type of business you run. As I said before, my analysis shows that B2C customers are more likely to be using mobile devices. This is even more common when the B2C companies have physical locations. So if you are a retail store, a restaurant or a healthcare provider, you will have a higher amount of mobile users based on that fact alone. I believe this is mostly just due to user behavior and localized SEO. If you are looking for a place for dinner, you’ll use an app like Yelp (but, try not to, because Yelp is awful – I’ll detail that in another post someday!), or you’ll use a Google search that is locally focused. Since you are looking to “procure” these services while on the move, it makes sense that they should be mobile optimized.

What about a different type of business such as consulting? Let’s say you are a consultant who provides strategic counseling and analysis to dentists - do you believe that many tooth-yankers are going to search for your services via a mobile device? In this case, you have a variety of factors leading to the answer that desktop-first makes sense. First, let’s look at persona details. How many dentists that are hiring you are under 40 years old - a demographic that utilizes mobile more than their senior counterparts? How many of them commute by public transit or spend time where a mobile device makes sense? How many of them are going to find you via social media? Yeah – not many on any of those counts. Most likely, they’ll find you when doing office hours. So it makes sense to have a way to HANDLE mobile traffic and look credible. However, it doesn’t mean you should focus your design on mobile and then work towards where your target audience most utilizes your content.

There isn’t a large content divergence from mobile to desktop

If you are designing an experience that will have virtually the same content from mobile through to desktop, then it takes some pressure off of the debate about which platform to start on. The biggest issue when designing mobile-first is the fact that mobile will always be the platform that employs less content than desktop. Many designers prefer to focus desktop-first because the desktop version will include all of the required content. As my art director told me when writing this post: “it’s always easier removing content than adding it.” I think he’s right – A designer wants to work with the entirety of the content and then work to remove, rather than design for a platform, and figure out how to integrate additional content later. Because I like to argue, I played devil's advocate and asked how he could focus on desktop versus mobile even on sites that are mobile-centric… his answer was interesting. He indicated he’d have to think about all that content anyway. “Even if I’m designing mobile-first, I’m still thinking about all of the content I need to include on the desktop.” Interesting thought – he's basically telling me that to designers, mobile first may mean mobile is the first mockup presented, but they are still working desktop-first in their minds during design.

When To NOT Design Mobile-First

Because you heard it’s the only way to do it.

I find it crazy I have to say this but, we all know some people want to do something because they read about it in Mashable. You absolutely should not utilize a technique, unsure if it even applies to you, just because you heard about it on a media outlet or from your friends who “know something about design.” Undergo some initial discovery and analysis and determine there.

Old world industry

There are still plenty of traditional industries where mobile matters much less than other areas. Though, they are dying out. It used to be that some industry verticals cared less about mobile. For example, building supplies. We spend much time working with building supply manufacturers at our sister agency, Orange Inbound. In the past, no one cared about mobile compatibility. Then, salespeople started hitting the road with tablets. Building supply installers needed to reference materials when on a job site. Suddenly, mobile mattered.

While they are few and far between, there are industries that don’t care about mobile. In which case, it makes no sense to design for that purpose specifically. Yes, you NEED a mobile presence, and you must have some experience for those devices. However, it would be best if you didn't focus first on mobile but rather on the environment where it matters the most.

Demographics

As I mentioned above, a somewhat consistent rule is that B2C matters more for mobile-first web design than B2B. However, there are exceptions. We have one client, for example, that is a travel site focused on retirees. Guess what? They trend desktop by a 2 to 1 margin. The lesson here is that it isn’t just the type of business that matters most, but also who your end user and customer is. In this scenarios, this is a case where only the data would support an approach that includes going desktop-first. However, since the gap isn’t narrowing and the difference between mobile and desktop users is substantial, a desktop-first methodology would make the most sense. Always keep your end-user in mind.

How about we focus on content first?

I’m sure that almost every client who asks the question about mobile-first web design is asking because that’s what they’ve read or been told that they should ask. However, is it the right question? In writing this post, I started to think about my conversation with our art director. If he’s thinking about the entirety of content from the first steps of any design, regardless of approach, then shouldn’t all of us? Moreover, isn’t that the correct answer to the question of what we focus on first – an understanding of the entirety of a design from the perspective of what the design actually consists of as opposed to how we’re going to get there?

In wrapping this post up, I want to reinforce that true experts know there isn’t ever one right way to do things. If you are speaking with designers who are adamant about a particular approach, that means they are letting their ego get in the way of adequately considering all aspects of your project. Your company and project is different from others – why should it automatically be assumed that any general rule applies to your situation?

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