Mobile-Friendly Vs. Mobile-First Design: The Crucial User-Centric Difference

In 2016, mobile internet traffic surpassed desktop traffic for the very first time. Fast forward to 2023 and mobile devices account for closer to 60% of global web traffic. Sure, some industries including real estate, automotive, and travel still hold stronger in desktop usage (large purchases mean a desire for a larger screen and more research), and the average site visit is longer on desktop than on mobile, but it’s clear that reaching for your phone is the go-to move. 

We know you know having a mobile-friendly website is important, but there’s a difference between being mobile-friendly and actually being designed with mobile usage in mind. When the majority of users are accessing your website from their phone, you might want to start thinking beyond just “mobile friendly” and thinking “mobile-first.”

What is Mobile-Friendly Web Design?

When accessing the web on a mobile device first began, developers relied on graceful degradation. They start with the largest screen, incorporating the most complex bits, and strip away content as the screen size shrinks down. The result is a technically mobile-friendly website, but probably with missing content and less-than-ideal functionality. If a user needs to pinch and zoom in to read the text on their phone, it’s not designed with a mobile user in mind. 

That’s where progressive enhancement comes in. Progressive enhancement starts with the smallest screen and building up. This mobile-first mentality leads to mobile-optimized sites, improved user interfaces, and higher-quality content. Plus, it’s easier to scale up from a phone screen to a desktop than it is to scale down. 

Why Mobile-First?

Putting the fact that mobile usage is higher than desktop usage aside, there are other important reasons to use a mobile-first mentality. It’s easier to scale a site-designed mobile to fit a desktop screen than it is to take all the content from a desktop site and shrink it down. Starting with a smaller screen eliminates the risk of mobile users missing out on content and information that just simply couldn’t fit. Designing with a mobile-first approach forces businesses to really focus on what content is important. 

Mobile-first doesn’t just improve your user experience, it also improves your search engine rankings. In 2018, Google began mobile-first indexing – shifting their focus from the desktop versions of websites to the mobile versions. Rather than basing their ranking criteria on the desktop version of a site, Google is looking at the mobile version instead.

Features of Mobile-First Web Design

The content mobile users are looking for is likely different from desktop users. For a restaurant, mobile users are probably looking for an address, hours, and maybe ordering take-out. For a retail environment, users on the go might be interested in the same things – hours, location, and also if a product is in stock, maybe even what aisle of the store they can find it. Starting the design process with a smaller screen forces businesses to prioritize content. Figuring out what content is truly important to your customers improves the overall quality of content. 

Navigation is challenging with limited space. Having intuitive navigation and a simple layout are key elements of mobile-first design. One longer webpage is easier to scroll down than navigating subpages after subpages. Hamburger menus take up less space than a text-based navigation bar.  

Certain features simply don’t work on mobile, or they work but are incredibly frustrating. Pop-ups, certain widgets, and any elements that require hovering are hard to deal with on a smartphone. Any videos or audio that automatically start are generally annoying to anyone and cause problems for accessibility, but they are even more annoying on a phone. Have you ever tried filling out a long form or questionnaire on your phone? Keeping forms to only the absolutely necessary questions, or allowing users to save their progress and continue on a different device, can ease their frustrations. 
Mobile users are often on the go, even if “the go” is simply walking from the kitchen to the living room. They want information fast. If your site is taking more than two seconds to load, there’s a risk people will exit before they even make it to your homepage. That’s it. Just two seconds. The risk increases with every additional second it takes. Unlike a desktop user, who is likely somewhere with a reliable wifi connection, mobile users could be trying to access your content with only one bar of data. Items including large image files are easy to replace to speed up the site. An image that’s viewed on a five-inch screen does not need to have 300 dpi. Even when displayed on a 17-inch laptop, lower-resolution graphics are fine. Loading speed is also one factor that impacts Google search rankings, making it even more important.

Is Your Site Optimized for Mobile?

One of the easiest ways to see how mobile-friendly your website is is to pull out your own phone and check it out. Take some time to explore, and note down anything that doesn’t flow quite the way you want. Grab a tablet and do the same. Of course, there are also various web tools to check your mobile-friendly status. Google’s own tool will provide a simple yes or no on being accessible on mobile devices. Hubspot’s website grader goes more into detail about mobile usage and other factors. 

Knowing if your mobile site needs work is step one to improvement. While you can’t really start with a mobile-first design unless you’re redesigning everything, the methodologies still apply for design updates. 

If you are still looking for reasons why mobile-first is ideal, just think about how you use the internet. How often are you browsing on your phone versus your laptop? Searching for “pizza near me” and looking for a menu? Figuring out where you know this one actor from. Playing Wordle. How often do you leave a website out of frustration over it not working just the way you want? When was the last time you were sitting at your computer, yet still reached for your phone or asked Siri a question? 

Even if you put all of those aside, and ignore every other reason to focus on mobile-first design over simply being mobile-friendly, the data speaks for itself. As of 2021, 92% of American adults owned a smartphone, and 77% owned a desktop or laptop computer. The simple fact that more people are accessing the internet on smaller devices is enough to focus on the mobile audience first.