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Mike Onslow 17/02/2017 Design,

“Mobile first” is a term that’s been around for a couple of years now and expands upon the idea of responsive web design, encouraging designers to consider how their product looks on mobile devices before thinking about bigger displays. As we move further into 2017 though, is it time to start thinking “mobile only”?

“Mobile first” is the practice of creating a website experience primarily with mobile users in mind and adding more functionality as you scale up through different screen sizes whilst, to put it crudely, “mobile only” is quite simply not bothering with the second part. This doesn’t mean that desktop is ignored altogether, but that the mobile experience is the desktop experience just with minor adjustments to ensure it is still viewable and provides a good user experience on larger screens.

It may sound radical, but there is certainly an argument to support a change in thinking towards designing websites purely for mobile devices. Mobile web use has been steadily growing for years now and overtook desktop browsing back in 2014, meaning there are more people surfing the net on smaller devices than there are on large desktop screens. Whether or not that means your website should be geared towards mobile only though, really depends what the nature of the content and who the target user group are.

Office timeline 2

As an example, let’s take the average day for an average office worker. Most likely, there’s a window of a couple of hours in the morning where they are more likely to use a mobile device, followed by a morning in the office in front of a desktop or laptop. A lunch break could be spent with either or neither, whilst the afternoon will probably see a return to the desktop environment. Device usage in the evening will very much depend on the individual, but a large percentage probably end up using a mobile whilst winding down or watching TV for at least a couple of hours a night.

Organisations focusing on larger business to business interaction and sales are more likely to have their website viewed during office hours. Going on the typical day outlined above, this means that the majority of users to that website will be using desktop machines or laptops, meaning a mobile only approach would potentially be detrimental to user experience and, ultimately, sales. Since a large proportion of visitors are using larger screens, it’s important to make use of the space available to provide a suitable experience for them, there’s no point just serving a blown up mobile view and expecting them to navigate as if they were using a phone.

On the flipside, a website aimed at smaller businesses, such as tradespeople or individuals, may well get most of its traffic from mobile devices and a mobile first – or even mobile only approach could give the target audience the best browsing experience whilst not taking anything away from those using larger screens.

An easy way to track this is to make use of web stats, such as Google Analytics. The two examples below show the GA device stats for two of our clients.

Device stats

The website on the left, “Website A”, is a client who provide a service for businesses, often large corporates, whilst the example on the right, “Website B”, is a website aimed purely at individuals. The trend is quite apparent, with nearly 85% of Website A’s traffic coming from desktop users and just 12% from mobile. It’s always important to have a mobile friendly website, but in this instance a mobile only approach would only serve in alienating the vast majority of this website’s visitors.

Website B, on the other hand, has a staggering 77% of its traffic coming from mobile devices and is certainly an example of where a mobile first should be considered and could even be a contender for mobile only, depending on the content type.

Conclusion

It might still be too soon for “mobile only” to become prevalent in web design. Many will see the concept of “not bothering” with desktops as lazy development, but it won’t be long until a large number of websites are seeing as little 5-10% of their traffic coming from desktops or laptops. At that point the additional effort put in to developing desktop-specific functionality becomes questionable and mobile only starts to gain a little more traction.

It’s an interesting debate and one that will no doubt divide opinion. For me personally, I can see the long-term benefits to this approach, but I think that it’s probably a bit too soon to start thinking about this seriously. Even when the time does come, I don’t think it’s a blanket solution for all design as it completely depends on the content and target audience of a website and how receptive that audience might be towards such change.

It will be interesting to see if anyone starts adopting mobile only design in the near future and what sort of response it receives.

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