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Mobile First Web Design: Definition, Essential Factors, and Best Practices

Adhering to mobile first web design will enable you to build a great user experience without having to rely on more complex technologies.

Written by RamotionJan 12, 202315 min read

Last updated: Feb 25, 2024

For the past 20 years, the web design and development industry have undergone several significant changes. In the early years of the world wide web, you could only build simple static websites interlinked to other web pages with no interactivity or dynamics. Just as the web and its technologies seemed to be coming of age finally, so is the demand for a more progressive way of handling different screen sizes.

With the advent of different cell phone brands and other type of devices comes a new challenge for many web designers. The rapid growth of mobile users that connects to the internet has provided a list of setbacks and limitations to website owners, especially in making websites look suitable and adaptable on smaller screens. This popularity has also forced many web designers to adopt touched-based operating systems and various platforms, from Apple's iOS, Google's Android, Plasma Mobile, Windows Mobile, and many more.

In addition, website elements and dimensions became stiff, which required the website layout to be scaled and adjusted. For the first time, developing fixed-size websites has become an inherently inadequate design strategy. As a result, designing websites that work across smaller devices have become a more complex design process, and creating adaptable and flexible web design standardization has become a lot more critical.

Building websites with desktop design and mobile design at the same time has been a daunting challenge. Furthermore, websites are not only being viewed on desktops or mobile screens but are also loaded to computers with wide screens, medium size screens, and devices as small as cell phones. The presentation of web pages on various browser types has added to the complexity of the potential design practices, which can lead to poor website performance if not carefully crafted.

Let alone that all providers control the user's mobile internet, which determines the bandwidth and loading speed affecting the whole mobile user experience. These screen density factors, including operating system, browser support, and the accompanying client-side technologies such as HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, have affected how we build websites and have become an essential element in the day-to-day web design and development workflow. For several years, many design team has designed and made websites for desktop and laptop computers without considering the mobile first design concept. In the subsequent years, different design methods for the mobile web emerged.

The Early Days of Mobile Websites

The growing size of the potential audience for the mobile web has pushed the development of mobile websites. The insane amount of monthly mobile searches and mobile use has paved the way for creating design methods for the website's mobile version. The mobile web aims to design and build websites that can deliver to the appropriate audience (particularly mobile users) with the right resources. While mobile sites have limitations, these methods have helped many web designers and developers cater a specific version of their website to specific users.

The early mobile websites look like layouts printed in a vintage dot matrix printer that utilized the limitations of Wireless Access Protocol (WAP). WAP is the old standard for accessing data over a mobile wireless network. Later in the early 2000s, WAP included support for XHTML (Extensible HyperText Markup Language), a syntax rule used for the mobile web. With the introduction of sophisticated smartphones, the mobile web added support for WML (Wireless Markup Language) content.

Eventually, mobile website design methods improved through transcoding. Transcoding is the process of constraining a desktop website into small mobile layouts, which became beneficial for users who are browsing the web with a minimal internet connection and a low bandwidth service. This resulted in restructuring certain website elements to fit into a mobile phone screen.

In the latter days of the popularity of the mobile web era, developing more than one website version has become the best solution for every project. This method ensures that websites are optimized for different screen devices through URL redirection to the website's appropriate version. This also gave the users the best possible features and functionalities while browsing on a particular device.

A Responsive Web Design Approach

On May 2010, Ethan Marcotte, a web designer and developer based in Boston, Massachusetts, introduced the concept of "Responsive Web Design," which proposed the idea that a website should respond to the user's behavior and device environment regardless of its operating system, platform, browser, screen resolution, and orientation. Back then, the typical user's monitor resolution was either 800 x 600 or 1024 x 768. Later, several screen resolutions were introduced in the market, including widescreen TV, different desktop screens, tablets, and mobile devices.

According to Ethan, adopting responsive web design methodologies is the best possible solution for the widespread usage of mobile devices. Responsive web design consists of design strategies to ensure the highest quality display of web pages on various screens. These strategies leverage the principles of flexible widths, dimensions, images, and CSS3 media queries. Among other things, it also encompasses some revolutionary features available on popular modern browsers and a few progressive enhancements techniques.

While responsive web design has been an effective solution for different screen resolutions' adaptability, in recent years, the mobile first design process has been a great approach to designing mobile friendly websites and mobile apps that keep the mobile user experience a major preference.

Defining Mobile-First Design

The world wide web is a highly volatile and progressive environment. Technology will continuously evolve, browsers will iterate faster than ever, and various small devices with remarkably robust capabilities, including mobile application usage performance and web browsing abilities, will be released. As more and more different types of mobile devices are coming out each year, so are the required mobile first approach methodologies and technologies that accompany these changes.

Mobile devices were predicted to take over the combined international market of desktops, laptops, and other similar devices in 2011. This prediction surpasses the market share report as more than a billion people are using mobile devices to access the web today than those using desktop computers and other devices. Statista states that 58.99 percent of global website traffic comes from mobile devices (this excludes tablet devices) in the second quarter of 2022. Mobile usage is only getting bigger and bigger each year. Many online businesses were already profiting from using mobile design, including e-commerce, booking, social, marketplace, and more.

With this information, it's easy to anticipate that in the coming years, people tapping on mobile screen devices will overtake those desktop users as it will be the widely used device for web access. Hence, if you are not considering doing web design for mobile, your prospective users will experience a poorly designed website instead of a mobile friendly site. If you are doing business by developing websites for a company, brand, or even marketplace, you must use a mobile first strategy to create an effective mobile architecture. In the long run, the quality of the product you will build will undoubtedly be used by most people on all possible devices, operating systems, platforms, and modern browsers.

Responsive Web Design vs. Mobile-First Design

Even though both responsive web design and mobile first design involve the process of creating websites that adapt and scale websites to respond to the current user's screen device, there is a lot of confusion and discussion in the web design and development community about which one to use for a particular project situation.

Today, web designers and developers usually have five common viewports that they target when creating websites which include:

  • Widescreen
  • Desktop screen
  • Laptop screen
  • Tablet screen
  • Mobile screen

These viewports are the main key dimensions for determining which web design process you implement in your project.

A responsive web design approach works perfectly if you want your websites to be flexible and adapt desktop screens to mobile ones. Using fluid layouts, flexible images and other adaptable resources, media queries, and some usage of JavaScript, responsive web design can make your website fit the screens regardless of the size of the viewport. On the other hand, mobile first website design works best if your primary concern is the mobile user's experience. This approach can be compared to designing a mobile application but with a progressive advancement process to the desktop screen layout.

The key difference between the two is which audience you prioritize and how you want to approach the website project. Responsive web design is always reactive to the four corners of the screen. In contrast, mobile first design is specifically crafted to react on mobile screens while making progressive enhancements towards the desktop and wide screens.

As a quick tip, if you are designing a website from scratch, it's recommended to go with mobile first approach as it tends to be easier to code with a single column at first. However, suppose you are working on a website where you want to target computers and widescreens, especially if it's a web redesign project. In that case, it's best to use the responsive web design approach and make it adaptable to mobile device screens later.

Essential Factors Affecting Mobile-First Design

While the strategy and accessibility mobile first design approach have become increasingly popular as mobile phone usage continues to take over desktop and widescreen devices, it remains a contrived process. Mobile devices are still vulnerable to almost any kind of situation. Different user behavior scenarios can happen to every web page and affect the overall user experience.

When designing with mobile design approach, it's essential to be aware of the following c factors that can contribute to the overall process:

1. Screen Size

A device screen size is the proportional display of the diagonal length. Screen size has become the primary key factor to look at when working with mobile first design approach as it determines the most diminutive inches possible you need to functionally design and progressively enhance as you go through the design process. With mobile first design, the result must be a great user experience focused on correctly placing elements on the screen's four corners.

2. Performance

Website performance is a perceived measurement of user satisfaction while using or browsing a website. There are times when mobile networks can't support some features and resources when being viewed on mobile screens. Adding fewer web elements and resources such as large images, unminified CSS, and fat JavaScript files on your website can speed up the server and browser loading times when downloaded on a mobile device.

3. Layout

The website layout is yet another key factor that could affect the entire mobile design. This refers to the arrangement or structure of web elements on a web page. The layout is an essential factor of mobile first design because it's the best way to ensure web elements are usable on mobile screens. One of the effective ways to inform mobile browsers that a particular web design method is intended for mobile screens is through the meta viewport tag. The viewport is the user's visible website area, which can control diverse pixel density.

4. Forms

The best communication tool a website can have is a form. Forms or web forms are interactive tools similar to fillable paper documents, where users can enter data that can be sent or saved through specific codes or databases. How you work with forms affects a mobile website's ability to function effectively, like desktop websites. When creating forms on mobile, it is essential to mobile-optimize everything from inputs and labels to buttons and ensures that form submission works perfectly.

The Importance of Mobile-First Website Design

By adhering to mobile first design you can build a great user experience without relying on more complex technologies. Building a website that works smoothly on mobile screens can make it translate better on all other devices.

If you are still thinking if mobile first design approach is for you, here are a few reasons why mobile first approach works well on most website projects:

1. Better Mobile UI and UX Design

Both user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) design are essential elements of a successful online product. Using mobile first approach can help you build a more compelling user and content-driven website. This includes planning and prototyping the smallest details possible such as fonts, colors, icons, and other resources, to make websites look perfect on the smallest screen device. This also ensures that websites are fully mobile-optimized and are scaled perfectly for minimal user experience.

2. Better Mobile Website Speed and Performance

Website speed and performance can impress or discourage your users. It's important to understand that user experience is always the top priority when doing online business. Using the mobile first approach ensures that the website design is mobile-optimized and loads faster. Scrapping unnecessary web elements and heavy functionalities that can slow down the website will significantly affect the overall site performance. This is also good for usability factors and search engine performance, making your website rank higher on popular modern search engines. A low-performing website will result in less promotion and searchability in search results.

3. Scalability and Resiliency

When building websites for mobile, scalability and resiliency are both essential support factors. Websites must be scalable and resilient to changes to maintain high-quality performance while being viewed by different device users. Scalability and resiliency are considered when using the mobile first design principles, which involve progressive adjustments to meet the users' requirements from mobile view to desktop or even widescreen view. This process can require a significant amount of extra design procedures to ensure that the additional functionalities and features are added as efficiently as possible.

4. SEO and Increased Conversion Rate

One of the best benefits of using mobile first design approach is the opportunity to get indexed and ranked well with the most modern search engine algorithms. For instance, Google primarily uses the content's mobile version for indexing and ranking purposes. In 2016, Google announced "mobile-first indexing," which became the default for ranking websites for several years. This means that the Google spider bot crawls mobile-optimized websites first and uses its content to determine a website ranking than the desktop website version. Thus, many mobile website designers and business owners took advantage of the value they could get from designing for mobile first. This approach has led to massive user conversions. When a mobile website is getting lots of views and visitors from search engines, so is the increase in conversion rate. In addition, optimizing your website for mobile first can help you develop compelling customer lists and a powerful brand.

The Best Practices for Mobile-First Web Design

Like other website and mobile application philosophies, a mobile-first approach contains several practices and strategies that need to be considered when creating websites with this approach. Most practices and strategies are centered on the user's perspective while also progressively expanding to the design patterns of other viewports, from tablet to widescreen devices.

Below are some best practices to help you make your mobile-optimized site as efficient as possible.

Focus on the essential elements. When building with mobile first design, you don't need shiny things. Keep it simple and remove all of the unnecessary web elements and functionalities that can slow down the mobile version of the website. In the end, what the user need is the content.

1. Prioritize visual hierarchy

Always arrange web elements according to their importance to help users understand the website information quickly and easily. Similar to any successful product design, some elements should stand out while others should not. To do this, you must manage different contents by carefully considering specific properties such as size, color, contrast, whitespace, style, alignment, etc.

2. Visualize using wireframes

It is essential to see how the website elements scale up or down. Creating wireframes should help you visualize every breakpoint from mobile to desktop screen. This can also speed up the coding process as there is already a wireframe guide that designers and developers can follow, which can set the design expectation for every device screen size.

3. Control the size of your web elements

To create an efficient mobile-optimized design, you need to control the size of your web elements. This can include images, icons, vector graphics, text, and buttons. When using the mobile first approach, you must constantly evaluate if a particular element will look good on mobile and if it will scale down properly or be contained within the four corners of the device screen.

4. Create intuitive mobile navigation

Whether you are designing for a desktop or mobile website, navigation is always the backbone of any application. Creating a seamless and intuitive allows users to navigate from one page to another page of your website with the least effort possible. For mobile design, always ensure that the navigation sits at the upper right corner of the webpage alongside the logo to be quickly utilized by the user. Lastly, choose the navigation color scheme carefully in the most convenient way possible for better mobile visibility.

5. Usability testing

Prior to the website launch, it is recommended to perform usability tests on all mobile screen sizes and platforms. Testing on an actual device is also a good practice, as you can see the actual output of a website before it even launches. To create a successful product, you must perform several test cases and see if each web element looks good and is contained within the four corners of the device screen. This can also help determine user behavior while using the website on mobile, which can serve as a blueprint for further development.

Wrapping Up

The rapid growth of mobile users has shifted the principles, practices, and strategies of mobile design. Mobile first approach equipped web designers and developers to create a good UI and UX design with the most limited space of the screen device. While there are multiple ways to make a mobile-optimized website, the goal for every mobile website is to always cater to the needs of mobile users while progressively enhancing elements for larger screens.