7 Mobile First Mistakes to Avoid

There is more than a little written about mobile first design. The problem is that most of what’s written is focused on designing for devices and not the people that use them. Here are 7 common mistakes, or misconceptions, I hear people making when approaching web design from a mobile first perspective.

No. 7: Thinking Mobile First is a Design Pattern

Mobile first is way of thinking about design, development, content, usability and experience. Like I said, much has been written and it’s mostly about mobile first “design.” This often leads to the errant assumption that it’s only about the design. It’s not. It’s really a strategic and philosophical way of addressing the challenges we face in this always connected world we live in today.

The term “mobile first” isn’t helping out either. It seems as though the word mobile more often than not makes people think about mobile devices rather the mobile context. To think mobile first means to consider everything that could be at play for the user. Their device is just one small piece of the puzzle.

I prefer to think in terms of making things appropriately concise when thinking about a mobile first strategy. I find it more agnostic in it’s intent. It drives toward the same goals but without drawing undo attention to devices.

No. 6: Assuming Mobile Users Have Short Attention Spans

In this time of information overload we’ve learned to prioritize our attention. It’s not that our attention has grown shorter, it’s that we simply don’t have enough time to take it all in. Therefore we have adapted our behavior to focus our attention on what is most important to us at any given moment.

Don’t truncate content just because the user is on a mobile device. As long as it’s relevant and helps user complete their goals they will view your content. Applying mobile first thinking to content means choosing every word, image, video, interaction, and bit of code carefully and using just enough to communicate your message clearly.

No. 5: Assuming People on Mobile Devices Want Less

Just because a user is on their phone is no guarantee that they want any less content, features or functionality in their experience. They just want the content, features and functions that best help them achieve their goals with the least amount of pain.

We can use mobile first thinking to help us focus on what provides the most benefit with least amount friction. If we keep in mind that mobile is a state of being and not a device we can keep that focus on the users context or situation.

No. 4: Assuming Mobile Users Want Different Stuff

Just as we don’t want to assume that the audience wants less we shouldn’t assume they want different content, features or functionality. Just because the person is using a mobile device doesn’t automatically mean they have different needs than when they’re browsing from their desktop.

It’s the users context that will determine what will be most useful at that moment. That said, determining what device is being used can allow us to be more targeted in the content and features we deliver. There’s no sense sending something down to a users device if the device is incapable of doing anything with it.

For some, a mobile device may be the only way they have connecting to your content. To assume a device alone defines a context would be wrong. The device is just part of the context and not the entire context.

Good Rule: Never Assume Anything.

Do your due diligence and speak to your users. Spend some time building an understanding and empathy for the real world needs of your users. Just as we shouldn’t assume they don’t want different content or features we also shouldn’t assume they do.

No. 3: Not Defining Measurable Goals.

If you don’t define what mobile first means to your project how can you know if you’ve succeeded? There are many quantitative and qualitative aspects that can be looked at to see if we’ve hit our mobile first goals.

At the device level, page load times are a great indicator of mobile first success. It’s about more than simply starting with the small screen media queries and working your way up. It’s about refining the code to the point where there is nothing going down to the device unless it’s being used. We can think of it in terms of creating appropriately concise code.

At the engagement level we look at things like increased or decreased time on site as a success metric. Sometimes getting the in and out quickly is a sign of improvement on task based pages. While increased time on pages that we want the user to read to the end is preferred. Maybe it’s about more pages viewed. Improved engagement metrics can also be an indicator that your content is appropriately concise.

No. 2: Not Creating a Mobile Content Strategy

Mobile first content is appropriately concise content. In other words, keep things short enough to encourage consumption but complete enough to fulfill needs. Don’t waste the users time or yours creating more than is needed.

What if you could only use 140 characters to get your message across? This constraint is at work every day on Twitter. Bite size nuggets of information that make for quick content snacking. I’m not suggesting this is the right content strategy for everything. I’m simply trying to illustrate the need to boil down content to it’s most efficient form.

It’s also about understanding when content needs to differ. Have a plan to deliver different, or faceted, content when it’s appropriate to do so. It also means preparing your content to be delivered to devices that have yet to be invented. It’s about creating future-friendly content. Create clean, structured content that is not tied to design. It’ll help you C.O.P.E. (Create Once Publish Everywhere) with the uncertainty of what tomorrow will bring.

No. 1, Biggest Mistake: Thinking Mobile First is About Devices

Mobile first is about people first. Devices don’t use themselves, people do. To do mobile first right means to never loose sight of the fact that you are creating an experience for a person that works on whatever device they choose.

Nothing goes farther to building a better experience, mobile first or otherwise, than knowing who your users are, what they want to do, and how they want to do it. Hopefully this seems obvious to everyone but it’s amazing how frequently this aspect is lost and all focus is on device level implementation.

Mobile first is about understanding ALL the possible constraints the user is faced with when they access your content. Knowing that those constraints can, and probably will, change for each user over time. Mobile first is a strategy to be followed, not a bolt-on feature to be added because it’s the cool, hip thing all the kids are doing.

Mobile first is hard. It requires discipline, a change in process, and a new way of thinking. Things are only going to get harder from here. Mobile first can help us prepare ourselves for those challenges.


Added 10/15/2013: Stumbled on this article Six Mobile Myths that says much the same thing but includes additional links to supporting materials. Linda does have two myths (4 and 5) that address the misconceptions about how users physically use devices and maturity of mobile design as a whole. It’s worth jumping over to read.

Published by

Mike Donahue

Just a guy that's passionate about creating useful, usable and desirable experiences for all humans. I love nature and wildlife photography, it's my source of artistic expression and inner peace. I live and play in South Florida with my wife Nikki and our girls (dogs) Layla and Cassidy.

2 thoughts on “7 Mobile First Mistakes to Avoid”

  1. Great post, totally agree. I think you make excellent points about determining the best content for the situation based on the user, and not simply truncating or reducing content or features to support a business idea of an on the go user. Regardless of the mobile device, if the user is trying to accomplish a primary goal and they can’t complete the task on mobile because the functionality has been truncated then that app just became less valuable. Cheers!

    1. Thanks. I really need to add an 8th mistake to avoid, mobile first means designing for the lowest common denominator. Like Jeremy Keith say’s “…it’s about STARTING there.” Maybe that’s better addressed in a post about progressive enhancement.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *