The Mobile First Approach Craze

We’€™ve been skirting around talking about the mobile first approach for a while, because this really is a highly polarizing issue in the design world, and for good reason. There are circumstances where this approach actually could have merit, but there are just as many, if not more, instances where it’s unacceptable to follow this mindset. See, the mobile first approach is in many viable circumstances very premature at this time, and in other cases, it’€™s downright silly. Ok, let me explain first what this approach means, and then allow me to explain a couple situations where it’€™s practical, and why abusing it is a big problem. I can in fact provide a real world example of where this approach has been expensively damning. The mobile first approach prioritizes designing interfaces, navigation patterns and scalability for mobile devices (phones, tablets etc.) over designs for PCs and other devices. This is a direct result of the increasing boom in mobile adoption, and the roping of these devices into business and lifestyles through the SaaS explosion as well. And, since mobile devices bring on a special set of development hurdles, and standards for UX, porting PC-optimized designs to these devices is problematic, where porting mobile-optimized designs to PC in theory would be less of a problem. The issue is a porting them to PC has been handled lazily most of the time. Mobile designs moved to PC, or in the case of SaaS, directly accessed by PCs, results in a lot of wasted space in the interface, and less proficiency with PC-oriented input approaches, making it frustrating for PC users, just as PC designs working with mobile input approaches frustrates a mobile user. However, in the case of social networks, mobile-specific games and a few other things, this mobile prioritization is justified, and perhaps in websites in general, as well as SaaS, some level of this mindset could be productive. However, adding layers of protocol that makes these designs look good and work well with PC screen standards and PC input devices needs to be regarded as a parallel priority. Remember, many mobile devices nowadays support USB devices like keyboards and mice, or had built in physical keyboards. Nobody wants to use a touchscreen for their word processing, report creation etc. A need for tactile input devices such as keyboards isn’t ever going to go away, no matter what science fiction would have us believe. Finally, all this said, let me show you a prime example of not only this mindset being used where it positively doesn’t belong in the first place, but of that situation going horribly awry. Windows 8 is a prime example of this mindset in action and it failing miserably. Microsoft chose to design an operating system optimized for phones and tablets, using a tiled app space in place of a task bar, and more limited, page-like orientation of multitasking, as well as use of large amounts of white space and swiping etc. as the primary form of interaction. This is fine for the mobile and tablet designs, but they ported this directly, unaltered aside from build architecture and driver set, to their PC release as well. Everyone hates Windows 8, because it works like garbage on a PC, requiring frustrating excessive motion and dragging around to use, a complete lack of realistic multitasking and very poor support of traditional input devices. So, while in some cases, the mobile first approach has merit, it has no place in cross platform operating system design, among other things, and even where it is handled, PC users need to be met half way, period.


Megan Wilson is user experience specialist & editor of UX Motel. She is also the Quality Assurance and UX Specialist at WalkMe Megan.w(at)