Why ‘mobile first’ works even for primarily desktop websites

I had an interesting discussion with a client last week at the earliest stages of the company designing a new website. This is when we love to be involved, as we can help focus minds on the structure and function of the site, rather than letting people race ahead to thinking about fonts, colours and menus. As ever, I recommended that they spend significant time and effort with paper and whiteboards first, working out what they want visitors to do, and of course what visitors will want to do. This should all be well under way before appointing a website design company, and they should then choose one which can demonstrate technical coding expertise, not graphic design ability. Almost all agencies do the latter pretty well, whereas the technical side is a different matter.

One of the things which came out in discussions quite naturally was the need to simplify the whole process of using the site. Why? Because this is what visitors expect nowadays. They want to see all their options available in a view, not hidden away behind pop-out menus and huge cascading structures. Deeper analysis of what visitors actually do has shown that they’re prepared to ferret around for specific information they want, but if you want them to see something which they didn’t come looking for, you need to show it to them, not hide it away.

Coincidentally, although this applies to viewing a website on any type of screen, this is of course essential on mobile devices. And that’s why many smart designers nowadays talk about ‘mobile first design’. Not because mobile is more important, but because if you get things right on mobile, you’ll be well on the way to a modern, more useable site on desktop computers too. A few years ago, you might have heard designers talking about ‘graceful degradation’. This is the process whereby as you look at a site on smaller and smaller screens, the content is slowly simplified appropriately. It was quickly realised that a better approach would be to look at things the opposite way, known as ‘progressive enhancement’. With this, you design the site for a small screen, ensure it still works well on larger ones, and then consider what additional content (if any) you can put on those larger screens.

There are hundreds of great articles on the web about mobile first design and progressive enhancement. If you’re likely to be working on a new website next year, you owe it to yourself to spend an hour or two reading around this subject and formulating your own opinion.

1 thought on “Why ‘mobile first’ works even for primarily desktop websites”

  1. Great advice as ever ! The last paragraph is crucial though. Recently I’ve tried to find information about machine components for automation using my mobile whilst out in our workshop. The suppliers’ websites I visited have specific mobile versions, and sadly the design has triumphed over the function and content – I couldn’t find the technical info at all, and the website fiercely resisted my efforts to view the desktop version.

    Please, website designers – by all means develop a mobile specific site, but if you’re going to cut off loads of functionality then at least give me the option of heading to the standard desktop site where everything at least works !

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