Today’s industry leading companies understand the importance of having an appealing and functional mobile website. Recently there has been a shift in mobile design philosophy, one where the mobile design comes first, contrasting the more traditional method of designing the desktop site first and then optimizing it to be mobile responsive.

Let’s compare the two design methodologies to see what fits best into your mobile strategy.

Mobile-First Design

In a mobile-first web strategy, the mobile site is simply (as the name implies) the primary focus. The designers and developers work together to create a smartphone-sized site which then becomes the baseline for the tablet and desktop-sized version. The need for such a strategy is growing, with ComScore stating that 11.3% of web users are mobile only, meaning they’ve never accessed online services through a desktop browser. Companies need to look at their current site design philosophy and pick a strategy that allows them to best leverage the rise of mobile users. Some benefits of the mobile-first approach:

  • Improved User Experience. With a mobile first site, designers and developers have to pick-and-choose features, they can’t include everything that would exist on a desktop site due to space and technical limitations. This in turn removes the possibility of functional constraint because the site is fully catered to mobile devices. For example, the menus will be simplified, content will be trimmed down – overall the complexities and clutter of a desktop site that often translate with responsive design will be left behind for a more streamlined site suited to the small screen.
  • Enhanced Customer Segmentation. If you think about all the data that can be collected from mobile devices in comparison to desktop you will realize that there is a whole world of opportunity when it comes to targeted marketing. Companies can take advantage of data like geo-location to present their customers with more specific offers in real-time.
  • There’s Money to be Made. This is a simple but powerful point. More users are conducting transactions via mobile and accessing paid services, so it’s vital to have a purpose-built mobile site. A mobile-first design can help maximize revenue generation.

With any strategy, there are always some caveats:

  • Design can be difficult. Most designers and developers are used to a more responsive “top-down” approach to website design. It might be difficult to find qualified designers that are experienced with mobile-first strategies who can work with the limitations of the smaller screen and fewer features.
  • Maintenance work. Managing multiple URLs and redirects is time consuming for IT. New promotions or rebranding efforts must be carried over to all sites.

Responsive Design

Responsive web design involves building one site which is optimized for a quality viewing experience across various devices and computers. The main basis of this approach is that it makes sense to have the site identify the user’s device and then adapt the site elements to the benefits/constraints of that particular device and screen size. Benefits of the responsive design approach include:

  • A single website is easier to manage. IT has less to worry about because they have a single site for all devices, and a single url is simpler for marketing to promote.
  • One URL means avoiding redirects. Redirects can cause lag times when the user is running on a slower connection…and slow load times are not acceptable to smartphone users. They’ll simply move on to another app on the phone and leave with a poor brand impression.
  • The user experience is consistent. A single site that responsively adapts to every type of device will present a consistent look and feel to users. They see similar graphical imagery whether they are accessing the site through a mobile device or the desktop.

There are also some noteworthy drawbacks to the responsive design strategy:

  • A single website is limiting. It might be easier to manage, but it’s limiting to direct users to the preferred area of a site if they are accessing it on various devices.
  • Older devices with outdated browsers might be too slow. They cannot properly display a responsive designed-site or loading will be incomplete. Companies shouldn’t risk a poor brand experience.
  • The user experience is what matters most. Interacting with a site on a smartphone is fundamentally different than on a desktop. The actual user experience can suffer with the “one-size-fits-all” approach of responsive design.

Choosing a site design strategy is a complex decision that requires a closer look at a company’s goals and audience. A mobile-first web dstrategy is a fundamentally a more proactive approach, with responsive design being essentially reactive.  Before selecting a strategy, the goal of your site should be well understood, so designers can recommend either mobile-first or responsive designs.