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  • What does 'mobile first' mean? A web developers' perspective.

What does 'mobile first' mean? A web developers' perspective.

26th May 2021 by Tim

The term ‘mobile first’ has been around several years now, but it still seems to mean different things to different people. It was first uttered by Google CEO Erik Schmidt at Mobile World Congress back in 2010.

He said, “We understand that the new rule is mobile first. Mobile first in everything. Mobile first in terms of applications. Most first in terms of the way people use things. And it means that we have a role now to inform, to educate through all these [mobile] devices.”

It’s a vision of our technological future that has gradually become reality over the last decade, but has 'mobile first' been adopted in the way Schmidt and Google envisioned?

The core concept was that everything we knew about website design would get turned on its head - a full reset. Starting from scratch: a change of approach that would see creating for the needs of mobile users as the priority. Designers would evolved their processes by looking at the needs of mobile users first. Developers would build based on the needs of the mobile site first - potentially even building websites using mobile devices as their development platforms.

Maybe that last part was just my interpretation of the 'vision'. In reality, coding websites has never been done that way around.

Most sites are built on desktop computers and are ‘dynamic’ or ‘responsive’ or ‘fluid’. These terms all relate to a way of displaying a website's content properly for all devices. Content responds to the changes in device, to display in the most intuitive way. This all makes sense, but at no point have websites been mobile-first from a coding perspective.

Working in reverse would be counter-intuitive to a developer who is used to creating the largest view before condensing things to work on small screens.

While designs can 'unpack' from mobile outwards, it would be inefficient for coding to follow suit. The time required to develop in reverse would see prices for dev work rise steeply.

So, what does mobile first mean to me?

While this concept has fallen short of my interpretation of Schmidt's vision, a mobile focus from a user perspective was inevitable, and that has impacted the website design process in a positive way. For me, it has been less of a paradigm shift and more a change in design priorities.

It has elevated the importance of efficiency and performance in a design. Compliance with a mobile-first design ethos has led to cleaner designs, and away from aesthetic-led design that was 'more show than go'. It hasn’t led to losing the design touches that make things look and feel special; rather, it has meant those touches have been more carefully considered.  Good developers have always striven for efficiency in coding, making everything as clean as possible. Efficiency is now also a design consideration.

To sum it up, for me, ‘mobile first’ is now such a popular buzz-term that it's used in mainstream agency-client discussions. It conveys our intent as creators and I think clients half-expect to hear it as an assurance we aren't completely inept! However, it hasn't made any difference to how the majority of developers build sites. Instead it has aligned designers to use principles that good developers have always used...

Efficient coding, fast load times, simple to use, easy on the eyes. Overall, it’s been a net-positive effect on website creation in general.