Mobile-First vs Mobile-Responsive Design

How to develop a design approach that engages your audience on the right device, at the right time using two different approaches to design. In this piece, our design experts at OPIN break it all down for you.

What does mobile vs responsive design actually mean?

Mobile design (also known as mobile-first design) and responsive design (or mobile-responsive design) describe two different approaches that designers can take when designing for multiple devices on the web. One can either start with mobile-first in mind or desktop-first in mind, and ensure all other devices are responsive from those respective starting points.

Designing for mobile first and scaling across to desktop or designing for desktop first and scaling down to mobile

Both methods have their pros and cons. By understanding both approaches and taking into account client budgets and business goals, you can determine which end of the design spectrum - mobile-first or mobile-responsive - is more appropriate for your project.

Responsive Design

Pros:

  1. Excellent for websites that contain large volumes of information (ie. enterprise, government, e-commerce)

  2. Crucial for SEO to reach the target audience

  3. Cost effective (development, maintenance)

Cons:

  1. The mobile experience is often not fully optimized for smaller devices

Mobile Design

Pros:

  1. Experience is completely tailored for mobile devices

  2. Can utilize features available on mobile devices

  3. Cheaper to develop and maintain versus creating an in-store app

Cons:

  1. Not suited for websites that contain large volumes of information (ie. enterprise, government, e-commerce)

  2. Not fully optimized for a desktop experience

Which approach should I take  Which approach would most benefit the user?

There are several factors that can help you determine which design approach will be best not only for you and your organization but most importantly for your users as well.

From a business perspective, this is absolutely crucial because how people interact with your digital products determines how well your business does within the competitive market. This means understanding when, where, and how people are accessing your information.

To determine your approach to design, follow these steps:

  1. Use a tool like Google Analytics to determine how people are currently accessing your website and content, and how many.

  2. Perform user tests to determine the wants and needs of your users.

  3. Understand the context behind when, where and why your users are on your website.

  4. Understand the goals and objectives of your business’ digital presence within the next 5 years.

Understanding your users and the devices they use, what information they consume, and the tasks they wish to complete upon entering your website should inform you and your design team of the best approach.

The difference between the two approaches, mobile-first and mobile-responsive,  is not trivial as it may seem. For example, when designing for mobile first, you are forced to strip away all the unimportant fluff that can be found on desktop viewing websites. This requires you to view your content from a different perspective and have a comprehensive yet concise understanding of the goals of your online presence. It also requires an easy-to-use navigation that is optimized for mobile viewing and also having rich and engaging content that is efficient to load on mobile browsers.

Essentially when designing for mobile you are starting with your smallest screen size and scaling up and across various devices, while taking great care with how it will be optimized when loading dynamic and rich content. The opposite can be said for responsive design, where you design for the maximum required screen size first, and as you scale down and across devices the content will adjust accordingly to fit the specific device.

Why does this even matter?

According to Statista, in 2018 52.2% of all website traffic worldwide was generated on mobile devices. Although this shows a strong global trend in website traffic, this should not be taken as evidence that every solution should begin with mobile design.

Knowing your target audience, their context as to when and how they are arriving at your website will provide the benchmark for choosing which method is best suited for your audience. For example, if your website is content-heavy and focused on marketing towards other businesses, then a responsive design can be more beneficial as SEO and rankings are more important to reach your targeted audience as many people within the B2B industry are on laptops and desktops during the working hours. In this example, a mobile-responsive design is optimal.

Let’s contrast the preceding example with a trendy restaurant in downtown San Francisco, where having a mobile-optimized website showing the menu and contact forms in the header can be more beneficial than having it located at the bottom of the page or in the footer of a website. In this case, a mobile-first approach to design would likely be preferred.

The most important thing to remember is that whether you decide to start with desktop or mobile, the experience you create should be the best possible experience for the people who will actually be using it.

Although your website may be responsive across a multitude of devices, the user experience must take into account the environment and context in which people are using and accessing your products. If the environment changes, so too do the context and nature of how people interact with your digital products. This means performing user research and testing to determine whether or not your hypothesis is accurate. This will not only benefit your entire organization but also the people who will be engaging with your products in this ever-widening expanse of connected digital devices.

Drupal

Drupal 8 is a powerful platform for implementing mobile solutions. Built specifically for the mobile-first world, Drupal 8 is an increasingly popular platform for large organizations due to its scalability and its well-known responsiveness on all devices. With thousands of contributed modules and themes dedicated specifically to improving Drupal’s mobile performance, it is clear that Drupal’s massive open source community stands firmly behind the mobile initiative.

At OPIN, our team builds award-winning digital solutions on all devices that include UI and UX design, development, and support exclusively on the Drupal content management system for enterprises and governments.

To learn more about what we do at OPIN, including our approaches to design on multiple devices, feel free to reach out to us.

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