Here are a few facts. There are now 1.2 billion mobile web users, Comscore reports that mobile is now over 50% of all online media consumption and in the last quarter of 2015, Apple alone sold 74.8 million iPhones and – statistically – we all accidentally swallow around 8 spiders a year!

OK, so stats only ever tell part of a story and some (even though oft-quoted) are meaningless and can even be untrue. A bit like that spider stat above. But the rise and rise of mobile, touch-screen, connected devices is as relentless and persuasive as any internet-powered urban myth.

There’s nothing fresh in that statement, and including a mobile design as part of a web project comes as standard. However, still for many clients this is a bolt on, an afterthought, a burden and actually just a visual design challenge done after the ‘proper’ website has been done.

Progressive Enhancement Not Graceful Degradation

Let’s think away from the web for a moment. Imagine creating a huge, beautiful alabaster sculpture. You’ve invested time, effort, emotion and indeed your very soul into it. Its scale is truly magnificent.

Then you’re told that the gallery space to display your work is small – actually it’s tiny. So you reduce the sculpture, chip away at it begrudgingly and painfully. You try to retain something of the original spirit but in your head and heart you are starting to despise the gallery and it’s smallness and to despise what the sculpture has to become. You lose your passion and in turn care little about this new version of the work.

Clearly that’s a path that won’t lead to a great end result and (because people are important) it’s pretty cruel on the artist involved too. So why would we think of doing this when we are creating digital products?

Why don’t we start with something small, brilliant, beautifully formed, appropriate, tailored and powerful – and then build on top of that amazing foundation with enhancement opportunities afforded by additional power, grander canvasses, alternative interaction patterns and increased user focus?

Mobile As A Mindset

For me, the power of a mobile first approach is the change in thinking that it demands from clients and agencies.

Yes, it means bashing yourself over the head with constraints and tackling business challenges from day one. It means thinking hard about what your end users really, really want and what a business really needs. It requires clear and sometimes difficult decisions being made about priority; what’s in, what’s out, what’s primary and what’s further down the pecking order? On a desktop, everything can be important – the screen real estate allows for this, so clients (and agencies) don’t really have to make a decision as to what is the most important. It also means thinking again about our approach to coding, not just loading everything and then simply hiding it on small screens, screens on mobile devices with lower bandwidth and perhaps even data usage limits being used up by invisible content. It means changing the design approach from what we are historically used to: big impressive surfaces for designers to flex their visual creative muscles. We need to be creating design systems that are streamlined and adaptable.

Mobile first is super lean and impressive. Trimmed to the vital elements, considered and crafted but ready to spring further to life on a larger surface. Ultimately, mobile first is more user-centric; desktop first is creatively selfish and – in many ways – lazy!

If Mobile Is First, What’s Next?

Next, or more accurately alongside a mobile first approach is context; what are the jobs to be done in relation to the screens we have available and what situation or environment is a user most likely to be in? There are screens for input and screens for output. There are scenarios where users lean back and others where they hunch forward. Understanding this context allows us to deliver what’s most authentic for a particular screen. For example, I’m typing this on a laptop connected to a large additional monitor. It would be more difficult on a tablet and at best frustratingly laborious on a smartphone. And while mobile may be the most consistently accessible (it’s always in your pocket, as mine is right now) it might not be the screen that’s chosen in a given context or for a particular task.

Also, obsessing about specific device dimensions is a bad path as they too frequently change. Last year’s mobile is now a much bigger screen, (iPhone6+, Galaxy S7) akin to a phablet, which has the screen dimensions of an iPad Mini. While a Mini is a mobile device it’s not considered a mobile. The world is filling with lots of screens and not all screens are small displays. Indeed the next burgeoning displays that we need to consider are super-big smart TVs with inbuilt connected apps.

Can we approach a 52” SmartTV in the same way as a 4” mobile screen? Absolutely. This large size doesn’t mean that the principles and benefits of a mobile first mindset aligned with a clearly understood context shouldn’t still be the norm as an approach to designing for this, or any future device or canvas.