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Should you design mobile-first?

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I was asked to write a piece on ‘mobile-first’. I have my own experiences but as always, I wanted to see what everyone else thought.

There’s a tonne of stuff out there on this subject. How can I offer you another opinion that’s as good as the rest? I started to read through some good ones.

I found a great article written by Connor Hood which made me think, ‘why bother?’. Connor’s covered it all – have a look here.

Connor presents a balanced argument for and against taking a mobile-first approach to your website or app. So, in response, I thought I’d give my own view…

Some context for my opinion

Here’s some thoughts from what I’ve witnessed myself and from a customer perspective. So the following are observations from product tests that I’ve been involved in. They’re also my own experiences.

So, should we design mobile-first?

Holding mobile phone looking at web

First off, I won’t be drawn on to whether it’s mobile-first or not. For me, talk to your customers first, then make the decision. Things change and as we have other platforms like voice emerging – it changes the discussion once again.

I’ve busted my thoughts into themes, here goes…

1. Usage

Well, when I wake-up and go to sleep, I usually have the mobile nearby – mainly to act as an alarm clock. If I’m travelling on public transport, I’m on the mobile (and it seems lots of others are too).

When I’m on my mobile, I’m scrolling through emails and news etc. I’m not hugely engaged in what I’m looking at. I’m mainly skim reading stuff – it’s habitual. I’ll normally only ever go to 3-4 apps; news, social media, bots and email.

What am I trying to achieve on mobile?

a) I’m trying to get ahead of the day and…

b) to be blatant, I want to be entertained!

Ever see that person on the train with headphones in chuckling away as they look at their screen??? I have. Often it’s me.

But… when I’m at the office, I’m on the desktop. The phone will sit next to me on the desk and it’s only usage will be if it rings. Broadly-speaking, this is a pattern that I’ve seen with many customers during testing.

To clarify, there is a bias here. This behaviour is attributed to a certain type of person; professional, desk-based etc. etc. probably not a fisherman, RAF pilot or Bricklayer.

2. Engagement

Yuck, that word again – ‘engagement’. A word that you’ll probably be hearing a lot of. So in this context, I think of ‘engagement’ as how ‘into you’ your customers are.

From our own user tests, we see this engagement first-hand when we see people literally ‘leaning into’ the screen to scroll or click on content that’s clearly hooked them.

So we look for engagements stats that show how folks are going deeper and staying longer on your page. If they’re sharing the content or downloading PDFs or free resources.

With desktop, there’s obviously more screen to look at. There’s also more ways to interact; hovering, zooming in and out, scrolling and clicking. There’s potentially (but not always) less environmental distractions like traffic noise that you’d normally associate with using a mobile device.

So compare the ‘leaning in’ desktop experience from my own mobile experience. On my mobile, I’m in a smaller space with a thumb or a finger – swiping, scrolling and tapping. I might have my headphones in. I’m in my own little world. I feel like I am engaged but I’m not as deep as the desktop.

A simple tip: don’t forget context when you’re looking at engagement.

3. Tolerance

So here I’m talking about how patient people are with their mobile devices and desktop computers and I’ve seen a slight difference…

I’ve watched people dump a mobile site or app if it doesn’t load in a certain time (under 3-5 secs.). I compare that to desktop and they seem to be far more patient.

A clock on a wall.

Why are people more patient on desktop than on mobile?

Could this be that they think, the ‘networks playing up’ or there’s another more familiar problem with the system that’s their own making?

I remember observing tests where users were saying, “I must remove some apps from this machine as it’s slowing down!” They appear to be far more forgiving of slower load times on desktop. Whereas mobile is just brutal.

Let’s think about context again. I guess with mobile, users are on the move and going places on a deadline. There is probably more environmental factors at play; stress, people bumping into them, intermittent signal etc. etc.

4. Researching and buying

Broadly-speaking, I’ve seen people research on mobile and buy on web. It’s something friends and family do. To them it’s like a game (something I saw backed-up by this piece from 2016).

I guess that’s why it’s been important for retailers to get their multi-channel game sorted.

“According to MasterCard, customers who shop both online and off with a specific retailer buy 250% more on average, so omni-channel shoppers might be more valuable in the long run”

The Secret Smile

Using the mobile device to research products can give customers a huge amount of satisfaction. For them to know that they have got the best deal they can is a rewarding experience. It’s lovely to witness the cheeky grin on people’s faces when we’ve been in-store and discovered they can get it £5 cheaper online. I love watching them then put the mobile back in their pockets as if to say triumphantly declare ‘my work here is done!’


A post it not of a secret smile.

5. Freedom

Another habit I’ve seen with people using mobile is that they’re obviously more location-driven. ‘Where’s the nearest / best shop, car park?’ Which makes them more open to sharing their location publicly as a quid-pro-quo. You tend not to see this on desktop. Their behaviour is more ‘task’ driven.

Rounding things up

This isn’t the only way to do it but based on experience, this is how we tackle things.

Some tips:

  • Test mobile and desktop behaviour…because
  • test mobile contextually so where and when they will use the site or app
  • It’s really the behaviour that I/we always get the most from
  • Agree your hypothesis; what tasks do users want and see if they can be delivered for mobile and desktop.
  • Prototype in both formats
  • Test again and validate or destroy your hypothesis
  • Which platform; mobile or desktop will deliver the most value for the majority of your users?
  • Only then do you decide if it’s mobile-first or not
  • This will also help you on what type of content sits where

Don’t forget

  • Test again across more devices (don’t forget tablets and smart watches)
  • You can now use Google Analytics to measure cross device behaviour. Click here to find out what that is
  • And most importantly, let me know your feedback!
Written by
George Beverley

George Beverley

Director at Insightful UX.

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