Red Fox coffee website on iPhone

Why Design Mobile First?

I was reading over Luke Wroblewski’s notes from a talk by Ethan Marcotte this morning, and musing over mobile and responsive design. One of the big challenges for a forward-thinking web design shop is to sell these ideas to our clients. This is because we don’t see it as our job to design something for our them, per se. We design for someone else.

Huh? Let me explain.

When building a website, we are picturing a typical visitor. But such a visitor isn’t necessarily here and now. More likely, we’re picturing someone who might visit the website next year, since we plan for websites to have lasting value. They’re quite possibly not familiar with our client or their offerings at all. And we certainly don’t assume they’re using our client’s 27-inch iMac. They’re in the back seat of a car, en route, looking at their phone, and in a big hurry. Or they’re on an iPad, at a coffee shop, trying to decide where to get their bike repaired. Or maybe they’re on some crazy device that hasn’t even been invented yet.

These are all distinct possibilities, and arguably more likely than a “desktop PC” situation. So why do so many website designs still begin with the assumption that the visitor is sitting in front of a fancy computer?

Possibly the biggest problem is of course that’s where the designer is sitting. I’m guilty of this myself. Not coincidentally, my display is 27 inches. So I have to play tricks on myself to get to thinking about these other people. And designing for them – not myself or my client. It means embracing the unique traits of the web as a medium, and letting go of the urge to design a vast, pixel-perfect mockup in Photoshop.

The answer is to design for mobile first, and then expand the design outward from there. It takes some getting used to, and it takes some careful thought and planning, but the result is a site that can be enjoyed equally by every visitor, and penalizes none. Such sites are vital, moving forward, because they prioritize the user experience. It’s great that the iPhone can show a 1000-pixel design in a two-inch-wide space, but believe it or not, no-one is actually going to enjoy the experience. No one is going to stick around to read the menu, catch up on the news, or buy the product.

We’re very excited to see Web Design finally – and fully – come into its own as a medium. 2011 is the year that Needmore embraces mobile first and responsive design, and we have a hunch we’re not the only ones.

(If you’re interested in the technical details driving these decisions, be sure to read Jason Grigsby’s excellent article on the Cloud Four Blog.)

Raymond Brigleb

Creative Director, dreamer, partner, father, musician, photographer. Has been known to ride the rails. Pulls one heck of a shot.