Mobile First Design

If you are designing for many screen sizes, where should you begin?

Traditionally, most designers will start the design process at desktop size. This is where most content is going to fit in well. Then you figure out how to squeeze it down to a tablet, then a phone.

I believe this is the wrong path to take, when designing a mobile responsive page (or any website for that matter). Just because a desktop page can flow responsively on a small-width screen, it doesn’t make it suitable for mobile.

The best thing you can do is to start with a mobile design. Straight away, you are met with a conundrum: how do I fit all this content into the tiny screen? You can no longer just drop a matrix or a data table on to the screen — there really isn’t enough space.

You are forced to think about questions like:

  • what you are trying to do?
  • what are the most important elements a user needs to interact with?
  • what is the most important action that needs to be taken after viewing the content?
  • can the content/data be summarised and simplified?
  • can you offer a better way to drill down to your content?
  • can my data fit into an existing metaphor (like a map or a calendar)?

Once you are done with the design process, you might have a crazy realisation: all the questions you asked yourself, and the resulting design decisions you made — they apply on desktop too.

That’s right. A good design is already responsive.

Now, desktop design becomes more about enhancement over a lazy content dump. You’ve already made the decision up front on what is important and what is not. You no longer feel dirty, having to add ‘small-hidden’ css classes everywhere.

Start with a mobile design on your next project. Your design will be better for it. When you pick tools like the responsive grid, pick one that starts with mobile too. Bootstrap 3, for example, switched gears to do exactly this.

Responsive is hard. Mobile is hard. But the thoughtfulness and effort we put into what we build will delight our customers. And our customers are the reason we exist.