Mobile first isn’t mobile only

by Brian Katz on August 18, 2014 · 2 comments

One of the people I follow has a favorite tweet. Basically it says the only way to win in the enterprise is to go mobile first and mobile only. It’s a great saying and many people agree it’s the right strategy, and yet, they take the phrase word for word and don’t understand why it never works. In a sense, mobile first and mobile only are at odds with each other. If you go mobile only why do you need to go mobile first, you are only catering to mobile devices, so who cares. Yet businesses don’t really understand the terms and end up in trouble anyway.

focus through lensI am a huge fan of the mobile first mindset but only if it’s understood. The first rule of mobile first is that it doesn’t mean mobile only. Mobile first is, instead, a strategy that requires focusing on the users and what they are trying to do. It feeds into the FUN principle, focusing on the users’ needs, but goes beyond that into breaking it down to their needs at the right time. The core of any mobile first strategy is understanding the users and how they process information on a mobile device. It becomes very obvious, that when people are using their phone, they can only focus on the task at hand. Therefore, it’s not just focusing on their needs but breaking their needs up into bite-sized chunks. It’s similar to the joke about eating an elephant, you do it one bite at a time.

Let’s contrast a mobile first app with a traditional desktop application. A traditional desktop application is usually a process in itself. It consists of a hundred little tasks that you put together to finish the final product. It has a menu system with a myriad of choices and different ways of doing things. It is often monolithic and requires too many steps to get things done. A mobile app for the phone is much more focused. It consists of 2 or 3 things that the user needs to get the job done. Its menu system has far fewer choices and is focused on a particular outcome. This doesn’t make either approach wrong, but the desktop application won’t work well on the mobile device. Interestingly enough, the mobile app will work just fine on the desktop.

If mobile first doesn’t mean mobile only, then how does a mobile app move across the spectrum of devices that a person will use. This is where the magic comes in. If you start with focusing on the users’ needs, as you move from a phone to a tablet, the person may actually use them differently. They have more screen real estate; they may even use a stylus or a keyboard. The need that is being addressed when they use the tablet is slightly different from when they are using the phone. The important part is to be careful expanding the scope and making sure that the app stays focused, albeit that focus becomes slightly larger.

Think of it like using a camera, you can go with a single prime lens, it has only one focal length and it’s better for one type of photo. You change your lens as your need changes. As you get even better and want to use the camera for a wide range of activities, you may switch to a zoom lens. That way you can zero on the subject and catch just a photo of them, or you can zoom out and take a wide angle photo that includes the surroundings. This is the same way a mobile first strategy works. You start with the laser focus and you carry it back to each device, widening the angle somewhat as you go, but still staying focused.

The tablet app therefore then becomes a laptop or desktop app. There are more options and pieces to work with, but the focus is still the same, on the task at hand. Think of it this way, most people just want a word processor when they use Microsoft Word. They barely use 20% of the available features if they’re lucky. On the smartphone, they just want to get the text entered and be able to start new paragraphs. When they move to the tablet they may start to format the text a little and be a little fancier. When they go to the desktop, they may change it into a newsletter, a web page or something else. The focus should always be on getting the words done, you just have more options as you move to different devices.

This is why responsive design doesn’t work in this analogy. It’s not just showing a different size screen as you move between devices; it’s also taking into account what the devices are capable of, being used for. Responsive design, although a great concept for a web page, in its traditional definition doesn’t fit the mobile first strategy.

When you approach mobile as a mindset, based around the FUN principle, mobile first is the strategy for helping the user do what they need when they need it. It’s what allows people to be more agile and flexible, on any device, be it, smartphone or desktop, making them more productive and efficient. Mobile only doesn’t only mean mobile devices; it means a mobile only approach to the experiences on those devices, keeping them focused, even if the device doesn’t fit in your pocket or your backpack.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Jeff Sussna August 18, 2014 at 10:59 am

Spot on. The problem with “mobile first”, or for that matter “mobile anything”, is that it states the problem in technology terms rather than human terms. You properly admonish readers to Focus on Users’ Needs. I would extend your notion of FUN by referring to Christensen’s JTBD (job-to-be-done) principle. Users’ jobs-to-be-done can change subtly depending on their situation. Trying to find driving directions while in the car isn’t quite the same as trying to print a map while sitting at my kitchen table. I may use my phone for one, and my laptop for the other; the point, though, is the environment and the specific act, not the technology I use to accomplish it. When we deeply understand users’ JTBD’s, we can better craft applications across devices to support them.

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Dr. Janice Presser August 18, 2014 at 2:03 pm

Responsive design generally applies to the silicon-based life form that uses the app. Nice when the carbon-based life form that uses the app is also taken into consideration!

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