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Not Mobile First, Not Not Mobile

When Jason Levin and I published our article, Mobile First Is Just Not Good Enough: Meet Journey-Driven Design, the responses were largely negative. They ranged from “this is obvious – why publish it?” to “mobile first is very important! Why are you denigrating it?” We didn’t respond to most of these comments, though in my mind I often wondered if the commenters had actually read the article.

If you haven’t read the article, here’s the TL;DR: for teams with limited budget and time, mobile first seems to turn into mobile only. While mobile is an important experience, there are still many actions that people prefer to take on their desktops, so we need to make sure to consider the context of an experience for any design.

But it’s worth addressing the detractors’ concerns.

We Need Mobile First

I recently met with a client who showed me mockups from team members (non designers). Long headers, verbose language, overall too much stuff. Of course, this doesn’t just make for a poor mobile experience – it’s not a great experience overall. But general best practices and good writing skills are tough to team; what’s easier is showing the person what this would look like on a mobile phone. When they see the 3-4 line header, they realize immediately “that looks terrible.” Typically, a 3-4 line header is also too longwinded to be catchy or enticing, but that’s harder to teach.

In these situations, mobile first is the obvious solution. We don’t want to waste time trying to explain the nuances of contextual design, and business owners and stakeholders rarely want to take the time to diagram user flows and journey maps. We need shorthand. We need mobile first.

We Don’t Need Mobile Only

Another client recently asked me how to best create forms that can be filled out via a phone and then printed. It was such an interesting idea that I considered the problem for entirely too long before I took a step back and remembered to ask for the context. She explained, “we know many people fill out forms to send us, and we want to be mobile first.”

But there are a few problems with this assumption. First, most people don’t have the ability to print from their phones. Second, even without considering the printing issues, it turns out very few people fill out forms on their phones at all – it’s too difficult to save the forms and email or transfer them in any way. In fact, Adobe’s mobile viewer doesn’t even support fillable forms!

We could have spent weeks designing and developing the ideal mobile first fillable form. Instead, we walked through the typical user journey, and we now believe people don’t actually try to fill out these forms on their phones. We’re going to interview users and verify this belief. If it proves accurate, we’ve saved ourselves time, and created a better experience by focusing on desktop and tablet views.

Not Not Mobile

Here’s the real problem: we’re always going to look for quick wins and shortcuts. We need to translate best practices into simple steps or rules for busy people to follow 80% of the time. When most people were unaware of the need for mobile experiences, mobile first accomplished the “shortcut” perspective. Just design with mobile in mind, and you’ll be good to go – because let’s be honest, you were probably already thinking about desktop. But now mobile is pervasive, and we’ve moved to the other end of the spectrum. People forget about the situations where a mobile experience is useless, because the end-user isn’t on mobile. So we have to shift our thinking, and put the focus on the context or the journey.

This doesn’t mean it’s time to forget about mobile. Far from it; it’s just time to take the next step. If your company is still struggling to get to mobile first, stick with that! No need to overcomplicate things for them. But if mobile first is shifting toward mobile only, then it’s time to get on board the journey train.

Marli Mesibov

Marli is a content strategist with a passion for the user experience. Her work spans websites, web applications, and mobile. Marli is the VP of Content Strategy at the UX design agency Mad*Pow, and she serves as managing editor at UX Booth, a publication about all areas of user experience. Marli is a frequent conference speaker, and has spoken at conferences including Content Strategy Forum and LavaCon. She can also be found on Twitter, where she shares thoughts on content strategy, literature, and Muppets.

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