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Putting mobile first with mobile-first design

Guide
by Stacy Parr Agency Finance Manager

Responsive design vs. mobile-first design

Many people mistake responsive design and mobile-first design to be one and the same, but while both methods work on mobile devices as well as larger ones, there are differences that you need to become familiar with.

Responsive design is a technical approach that usually begins with an initial desktop design, and scales down so that it adjusts seamlessly to the screens of whichever device the website is being viewed on.

Mobile-first design is a strategy in which you design the site for mobile first and scale up instead – this way the media, font, load time etc. are all optimised for mobile users allowing for a more pleasant mobile experience.

Why choose mobile-first design?

Mobile devices account for 52% of all web page views so it is vital that your website caters for mobile visitors in order to provide a positive user experience. But, if both responsive design and mobile-first design work for mobile users then what is the reason for choosing mobile-first?

The rule of thumb that mobile-first design is centred around is that the mobile experience should be at the heart of website design strategy.

Take a look at your own usage stats on Google Analytics to find out what percentage of page views are done on a mobile device, if it’s a clear majority – or if the trends are going that way – then you need to put the mobile user at the centre of your decision-making. If most of your audience view on desktop and it is likely to remain that way then using responsive web design will be more appropriate.

If your team is used to designing desktop-first, it can be challenging to make the switch; here are some tips from our experts to help you along the way

Designing with mobile in mind

Content comes first

As mobile has the smallest screen size, it naturally comes with the most restrictions, so get familiar with these parameters before beginning to design. With mobile-first design, you are forced to prioritise content more than you would if you started with desktop.

On mobile, you need to limit the amount of content that you include in order to avoid pages looking overcrowded. As you scale your site up, you can start adding information, so when you are planning, start by setting your first-priority content that you want displaying on mobile, and then outlining secondary/tertiary content that you want to include as you scale the site up for tablet and desktop.

Be careful with large and complex media

Try to avoid including any images that are too complex, such as detailed graphics, as these don’t tend to display well on smaller screens and would likely require zooming to see any detail.

While you want your images to be of good quality, you don’t want this to hinder page-load speed too much so optimise image size as much as possible; a whopping 75% of mobile users leave a site if it takes more than 5 seconds to load.

Compress images for mobile screens and opt for lazy loading – read more about how to reduce page-load time here.

Touch-enabled design

Ensure that any buttons are of suitable width for fingers and thumbs and leave plenty of space around buttons and hyperlinks to make it easy for users to get where they want to go.

Prioritise their user experience

It is vital to put the user at the centre of your design regardless of what device they are using, but bear in mind that mobile users can be less patient and become more easily frustrated with poor user experiences than desktop users. Optimise your site to load quickly, ensure that the user isn’t required to zoom in to read your text – the font you use should be spaced correctly on every device and not look too cluttered or cramped on smaller devices. Read more on how to create a user-friendly website here.

Simplify your navigation

A large nav will be inconvenient to display and will take up a lot of space on the screen. A way around this is to utilise a Hamburger menu which will hide the navigation links neatly to be accessed by the user as and when they require.

Consider how users interact with mobile sites when you design yours (tapping, swiping) and design with this in mind.

Test, test, test!

Your site needs to be accessible by all browsers and deliver a positive user experience on all devices, and that includes old models as well as new models. Thoroughly test on all devices, platforms and browsers.

Before you start…

Be aware that mobile-first design requires a team with good understanding of the approach and it tends to require more time and effort to develop from scratch. But don’t worry if you need help with the build, our team of developers in Manchester are on hand to work on web development projects efficiently and discretely – get in touch to discuss your project.