Why ‘Mobile-First’ Responsive Web Design matters

By Mark Hawkins, Operations Director – Bluegrass Digital

In a world in which there are now more mobile phones than people optimising content for mobile consumption has become a business imperative. And in developing regions such as Africa, the importance of mobile is magnified by the fact that the majority of people only access the Internet via their mobile phones. Added to this, the variety of gadgets that middle and higher income consumers have to choose from is expanding at a rapid pace. Instead of being limited to a stationary desktop PC, consumers can arm themselves with sleek notebooks, feather light laptops, tablets, phablets, and of course, the ubiquitous smartphone. These trends have massive implications for businesses of all sizes and across sectors, as the way in which consumers and potential customers access and consume information is being radically altered. First and foremost, it means companies need to rethink how they are presenting information in the digital realm – and whether it is in a mobile-friendly, easily accessible and engaging format.

‘Mobile-First’ Responsive Web Design

Although ‘Mobile-First’ Responsive Web Design (RWD)  is not a new idea it is gaining attention because of its ability to create a great user experience across multiple devices and allows websites to reach more people through a better mobile experience. Put simply, the mobile-first RWD approach places emphasis on creating a great mobile user experience first, before considering other formats.

A mobile-first RWD approach has many benefits. For one, it enables any device capable of accessing the web to have a functional experience on your site. In addition, it ‘democratises’ the web by enabling websites to reach more people, and it also gives designers the opportunity to utilise new mobile technologies such as gesture events, barcode-scanning and geolocation.

But where should you start, you may ask? Well, because you are essentially losing up to 80% of your screen real estate, the approach forces designers to focus on their businesses core content and functionality. It’s about preparing your content to go anywhere, staring with the mobile web.

Many businesses are hesitant to adopt new formats and may look at this approach and think that it sounds like a lot of hard work, and they would be right. Taking a mobile-centric approach and creating different formats and content for different devices requires a big investment of time and resources and prioritizing what you think is most important for your business. In the past few years companies have created stand-alone mobile sites, but the time and expense involved in developing different code for various devices can escalate quickly, and we believe that these resources could be used more efficiently and optimised by devoting them to the creation of a responsive website. In most cases, this is far more effective than creating an entirely separate mobi site and the long term payoff is huge as your site continues to work on whatever new device the tech gods decide to unveil 4 yours from now!

Content is Still King

If companies do choose to go the down the mobile-first route, the first place to begin is by taking a considered look at their existing content – and deciding which content is important for the mobile user. This may well involve cutting out a lot of the existing information that is presented on traditional websites, and finding ways to make the messaging streamlined and succinct. Once the content hierarchy has been decided upon, the next step is to structure it in such a way that it creates meaning for users and is relevant across formats and devices.

The Mobile Challenge

After the content has been decided upon, the next step is applying it to a mobile environment. Unsurprisingly, the mobile format is far more challenging for designers than any other, with its inherent instability and space restrictions. That is why by starting with the mobile experience and then by building out from there – you are laying the essential foundations. If the mobile format is both reliable and relevant, chances are this success will be carried over to multiple devices.

No Easy Feat

While this article is simplifying the mobile-first RWD approach considerably, it remains a daunting task for many designers and web experts. In many cases, designers are still caught in the old way of thinking, which propagates that responsive web design is simply shrinking existing sites down. Yet as Frost explains, mobile context is “so much more than screen size”, and true mobile-first responsive web design accommodates the most difficult context first.

Yet although the prospect of reformatting existing content and transforming old and trusted websites may be scary for many business owners, it is becoming critical for companies to adapt to the new mobile centric consumer landscape. For those who drag their feet, the consequences can be dire.



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