Should we really design for mobile first?

By Deane Barker on September 2, 2011

Transmedia Design for the 3 Screens (Make That 5):  Jakob Nielson throws some water on the mobile parade:

Many people predict that mobile devices will be the only important user interface platform in the so-called “post-PC” future. Some even recommend designing websites for mobile first, and then modifying the design for the desktop PC as an afterthought.

I disagree.

I know this is not a popular sentiment right now, because mobile is supposed to take over everything, but Nielsen nails the reasoning why the full-size PC will likely continue to be the dominant platform:

  1. Much larger screens
  2. Better input devices

And he’s right.  I think my Droid X is amazing, but the screen is small (even though it’s the largest phone screen around), and the keyboard is not great (despite being a fantastic mobile keyboard – I just have big hands, which makes it awkward to enter text on).

The fact is, there is no behavior I could do on my laptop that I would rather do on a phone.  (Well, maybe Angry Birds…)  I will do things like checking in for a flight on my phone if I have to, but I’ve rather do it on a PC.  Some things – like searching for and buying a plane ticket – I would never do on my phone.

In addition to the larger screen and the better input, there’s another advantage to full-size PCs – you are usually in front of them when you want to do things.  Yes, I know we all have our phones with us all the time, but during our productive hours – when we’re most likely to be doing things like buying plane tickets – we’re sitting in front of a full-screen machine with a nice comfy mouse in our hand.

I have my phone when I’m out and about…but I’m out and about, which means I’m likely doing something else and consuming information is not my primary concern at the moment.

[…] the best computer is the one you have with you when you want something done. This will often be your phone or tablet. I move my iPad around the house so it’s close at hand when I want to look up something on the Web. For example, I often make dinner reservations using the OpenTable app on my iPad. Although that app is clunkier than the OpenTable website on my desktop PC, I’d rather suffer 20 seconds of extra interaction overhead with a bad app than spend a minute walking upstairs to the PC.

Much use will thus shift from desktops to phones and tablets, but a big percentage of use will remain on the desktop. It’s hard to estimate the exact percentage for each device class, but it’s fairly certain that the highest-value use will stay predominantly on desktop. Thus, the percentage split of value between devices will be more favorable to the PC, even if the percentage split of time increasingly turns more toward tablets and phones.

A lot of people are saying we should design for mobile first, full-size second.  I’m just not seeing a compelling argument there (though Tom Wentworth makes a pretty good case for it).

I think both mediums need a lot of attention, in different ways, but you need to take your audiences into account.  It’s absurd to think that mobile penetration and usage is going to be the same across every audience.  There are certain websites and certain tasks that are more suited to a full-size machine than from a mobile machine, and usage of these will likely stay heavily concentrated to full-size browsers.  I’m willing to bet these sites are actually a majority, and that your site falls into the group.



  1. It’s not Mobile ONLY. It’s Mobile First.

    On a way-too-basic level, this is an issue of responsive web design and content strategy. You start with mobile and say, “what is most important here.” It’s the lowest common denominator. Then, you add and optimize based on screen size thanks to media queries.

    Content wants to be boundless, and the hardest boundary to push content into is the mobile field. Creating for mobile and adapting it for the larger screen is a lot easier – and a lot more effective – than designing a full-size site and then squashing it into a mobile format.

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