Revisiting Mobile First

I was hired in 2014 to manage a web redesign project, taking it from being a static site which hadn’t changed much since the mid 90’s to a truly dynamic, responsive website utilizing an open source content management system (Drupal). We had the best intentions for it to be ‘Mobile First’, taking into consideration that more and more people are accessing the internet from a mobile device. We were believers in there being concise content that can be responsive to any screen size. When it came time to design the site, our designer actually did ‘Desktop First’. He felt that in practice it was easier to work backwards by having a concept of how the content would look in a larger screen size, then scaled down the design to fit mobile. So what went wrong? How could we have stayed on track and carried out the gospel of ‘Mobile First’? Looking back, we didn’t allot enough time to focus on developing our content. We had a content strategy, but it didn’t center on the needs of a responsive website.

One might argue that if we were going for ‘Mobile First’, then we would be neglecting desktop and larger screen sizes. But what are we actually neglecting? Is it the needs of the user on a desktop computer versus a smartphone? How might those needs differ? Studies have shown that users don’t actually read websites like a book, unless it’s well... a book. For most other websites, they scan them, looking for the information they need. In the context of mobile devices, it’s assumed that most users are on the go and that scanning is the norm. This is assumed, however. 

What if we were to follow the gospel of “Context First”, which is a content-driven strategy based on the context of the user and not by screen size? For example, on a library site there typically is a databases page. The purpose of the page is the serve as an index of sorts for users to quickly find the database they need based on the context for why they need it. This may look like a nutrition researcher in a health sciences library looking for agriculture data and would therefore need the appropriate database to find that information. In this context, the page may range from having a simple list of databases by subject to a sophisticated decision-tree based search engine that will query metadata associated with databases and pull a list of results that best represents the needs of the user. How might this look on a smartphone? It may be simply a dropdown subject list and a search box. On larger screen sizes, we may have more screen real estate, but are the needs that much different? Why not give users the freedom to choose how much information they want to consume? This requires careful planning and a solid content strategy centered around user contexts that can influence design. This may translate into user research, then developing personas and use cases based on that research. From there content can be created around these contexts, regardless of screen size.

I don’t have all the answers, but based on my experience, Mobile First has great principles but we weren't prepared carryout that approach. Lessons learned, I would have been so much more focused on creating more meaningful content based on what matters most - the needs of our users. Technology is a tool; it shouldn't be the vehicle that influences content decisions. I believe that Context First embodies the Mobile First approach by being concise and to the point but goes one step further with the perspective of being aligned with how users are actually using the site. Sometimes this may mean going "Desktop First" and being a bit more verbose if that is what user research supports. Ethan Marcotte once said, "focus on people not devices" and that's the way it should be.