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Is a mobile first approach right for your product?

Ben Obear
July 23, 2015

We live in a society where mobile phones and desktop computers are not just luxuries. They are a necessities to maintaining a connection to friends, families and companies that provide us with the products we use every day. Without Facebook and other social applications to keep us communicating, product pages to tell us what we need and time management software to plan our days, we wouldn't be able to function.

Selling a product or service today can be akin to jumping in shark-infested waters and trying to swim down to the shark cage to get a taste of the action in the safety of that impervious barrier. It's not just about marketing your product anymore, it's about providing positive user experience on a platform that emphasizes all of the benefits of your product without turning potential customers away with sub-par design.

Mobile or Desktop?

It is estimated that around 25% of total media spending occurs on mobile ads. This indicates that marketers are pretty convinced that the mobile industry offers more sales potential than home computers. According to ComScore, consumers currently spend nearly 90% of their time on mobile apps. Keep in mind that social platforms like Facebook and Instragram can be attributed for much of this. How much of a consumer's time is actually spent browsing products with the intention of buying?

Facts and figures about mobile users can be useful if you are a statistician, but with so many variables involved in determining usage and preference, figures are still just numbers. So people download billions of mobile apps a year. Does this include apps that are deleted within a day or two or were only downloaded to receive a reward from an online game or accidentally purchased by an inexperienced user? In determining the success or failure of any technology you must take a more intuitive approach.

Screen Size Does Matter

In deciding whether to take a mobile first approach for your product, it is important to think in terms of screen size. Yes, size does matter. There are screens of every dimension in today's market. Ipods, Iphones, tablets, desktop computers and hybrid varieties that were once termed "phablets" but have mercifully been renamed and include devices like the Galaxy Note, Lumia 1520 and, more recently, the iPhone 6 Plus.

Developers and designers know all too well the complications involved in creating content for products that will be advertised across different tech devices; most issues involve compensating for screen size differences. How do you design a product page that is flashy enough for computer users yet friendly enough for mobile users? Here is where a mobile first approach comes into play.

Mobile First: Expedience or Experience?

A web designer knows the work involved in building a product webpage for a desktop computer. The goal is often not just to sell the product but to impress visitors with a sweeping graphics and interactivity. Unfortunately, this extravagance doesn't translate to the mobile phone, leaving mobile users frustrated at the slow loading speed and lack of information. They want a page that is quick to load, easy to navigate and succinct in its purpose.

By focusing on a mobile-first strategy, you guarantee your content is formatted for easy navigation and respectful of a user's time. However, you often have the added requirement of "hooking" the consumer to opt into further commitment, particularly if you plan on using a mobile app as part of your marketing strategy. This added expectation means that you can't just create a button or two and upload images of your product. The users want a positive experience, they want utility and a reason to come back to your application.

Benefits of Mobile First Design

There are many benefits to taking a mobile first design strategy:

  • Fast: Consumers can expect fast loading time that isn't hindered by excessive images and programs that won't work on mobile devices.
  • Functional: There is an orderliness to everything on the page, it is easy to navigate and find the information consumers are looking for.
  • Friendly: Mobile users relate a better user experience since the page is designed specifically for them.
  • Focused/Fluffless: Consumers are given a distinct view of your product without all of distractions, since you must create for them information that emphasizes the core attributes of your product or service.

An Incomplete Picture

It's easy to see how a mobile first approach can help designers create a prolific marketing strategy, mobile users still account for only a quarter of the buying presence on the web. Desktop users command a larger share of the market because of the sheer amount of time people spend at home. A standard work day is eight to ten hours long, with one or two hours of commute time and an hour or two for lunch per day. People spend significantly more time at home on their desktop computers or tablets. So focusing on a mobile first strategy without an immediate plan on expanding to larger-screen users can be detrimental to the success of the product.

Responsive Design

Responsive Design is a complement to the mobile first approach. With responsive design coders can use media queries to modify content for a specific device or screen size. It basically allows larger screens to add layers of media that enhance the content but doesn't take anything away from the core product message. This progressive enhancement of page design takes into account the myriad of different customers who might be visiting your app or browsing your products, and it works alongside mobile first design.

Product marketing should never be a one-sided affair. Content that expands past 140 characters or includes a lot of images just won't look as good on a small screen. In order to expect marketing success you will want to have a presence on the big screen and on mobile devices. So the decision to focus on one format or the other first depends on your goals.

Is a Mobile First Approach for You?

Knowing the difference between a traditional webpage, mobile-first design and responsive design doesn't make answering that question any easier. Whether you choose to use a mobile first approach is dependent on the type of product or service you are selling and how you plan to market that product. Here are some questions to consider before deciding whether to try a mobile first approach.

  • Is it a product or a service you are selling? Information is much easier to present in a smaller format than an inventory of tangible products. Images translate better on a larger screen where consumers can see details and pull up more products at once. It is far more advantageous for an SaaS developers to start with a mobile app and progress to desktop design than those who must physically transport products to consumers.
  • Interactivity. Are products or services user created or dependent on outside influence? Instagram and Vine are two very popular mobile apps that allow users to watch and upload their own content. People love to feel like a part of a community and will return to see how they fit in with the rest of the users.
  • Is your product or service Timely? Mobile users visit their apps on a daily basis and will often check on an app more than once a day, where they might visit a website only once every few days. If you are able to add new information on a daily basis, you will be able to keep the mobile users coming back.
  • Do you need a quick return on your investment? This may seem like an inane question. Who wouldn't want to earn money quickly on their product? Historically, webpages take a little longer to get established because the page must filter through Google Analytics and other such processes to reach a satisfactory page ranking. With a mobile app users often pay up front for access to content and products. However, it can be hard to reach an audience with a mobile app and income might be sporadic.
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Ben Obear
San Francisco