Small Time: Designing for Mobile First

Jan 20, 2016 | B2B, Digital, Web Services

I’m a middle-aged man. Only four years ago, I continued to wield a flip phone. At that time, whether at work or home, my Internet experience was contained to my large desktop screen. As a stubborn creature, I clung to this habit longer than some of my peers, and far longer than the many millennials at my heels.

On a fall day in 2013, under the momentary impression that I had money to spend, I bought my first iPhone. (My two boys are soon to be 13 and 16, and any thoughts I have of financial liquidity can be chalked up as disillusion.) For the next few months, I barely used it. One app. Three apps. Then, before too long, it became my lifeline to the world. My home desktop became relegated to paying bills (it was easier) and watching TV shows for which I had not paid. My main window to the world was now the small screen and it has been ever since.

Flipping the Switch to Mobile First

However, as a designer and a web developer, I continued to approach my work from a “desktop first” perspective. The initial layouts were conceived and coded in massive, glorious, 1900 x infinity pixels. Weeks, sometimes months, were spent refining and enhancing the desktop experience, with all of its inherent territory. It was big. It was sexy. The clients were happy. Finally, in a few rushed days we’d cram all of that brilliance into a responsive layout that provided a workable — if somewhat limited — experience on smartphones and tablets. Done.

Enter 2016. It’s time to rethink this approach. All of the numbers and trends and charts and graphs and prognostications insist that mobile is king. The coin has flipped, the page has turned, as a collective flock of mobillites — we’ve swiped left. As far as Internet search and eCommerce is concerned, the inviting, forgiving real estate of the big screen has been supplanted by the small.

It won’t be fun or easy, but web designers and coders are going to have to bite the bullet and use those initial weeks and months of concepting, design and UX focusing on the 320 to 414 pixel-wide world we all keep in our pockets. From there, the respective experience for the vast landscapes of our dinosaur desktops will be upscaled, upsized, spread out and — say it ain’t so — a secondary thought. The exact opposite of the way it was done just a couple years ago.

Desktop Design is Dead, Long Live Desktop Design

Now, to backtrack a bit, the desktop design cannot be an afterthought. Still, it cannot be the forethought. Too many of our audience will never even see the desktop version to give it the priority. Granted, some niche sites may still see the lion’s share of their traffic from desktop (read: b2b) but that will not be the norm. Yet, on the rare (and getting rarer) occasion your site is accessed from land, it needs to look impressive. 

So in closing, I send a very heartfelt “Sorry <sadface emoji>” to the design department. Put down your paint rollers and get out your tweezers. It’s time to hit the Small Time with mobile first design.