Many design teams start by laying out a website for the big screen—desktops and laptops—before shrinking it down for mobile. It’s second nature to think of the computer screen as the starting point for internet content, so this is approach fully understandable. Yet, flipping this process on its head is often the smarter move, although it’s a road less traveled when envisioning the final form of a digital product.

Simpler, Clearer, More Direct

Every system operates at the threshold of its least capable part. When you begin designing with the mobile view in mind, you’re working within the modest dimensions of a mobile screen, far smaller than laptops or desktops, which imposes a useful limit on how many elements you can include. This practice of shaping web and digital designs with a mobile-first mentality is a cornerstone of modern design parlance.

Limitation demands simplification. A big space is a magnet for mess, much like a sprawling table invites clutter. Designing for the tighter confines of mobile first is like a masterclass in minimalism, ensuring that only what truly matters finds a place on the page.

Getting straight to the point is a hallmark of value in digital product design. When we interact with interfaces, we’re all business; whether it’s withdrawing cash, printing a document, or getting a train ticket. We’re not there to decipher the quirks of the interface; we use it simply as an essential step to achieve our goal.

Don’t Forget to Include the Steering Wheel

Focusing on mobile first helps prevent overloading both the user interaction and the visual design. Just like steering wheels are a given from compact cars to SUVs and go-karts, prioritizing mobile ensures that the core essentials are integrated right from the start. By starting with the smallest screen, it’s possible to guarantee the digital product’s design is stripped down to what’s indispensable, ensuring the essentials are in place.

Once the essential mobile functionalities are nailed down, layering on additional features for more capable devices is always an option. What fits on a small screen will definitely fit on a larger one, but the reverse isn’t true. This practice of incrementally adding features where they become feasible is known as progressive enhancement.

You can tell when an interface has been retrofitted from a larger canvas to a smaller one. The usual pitfall is trying to replicate every single functionality and, consequently, every interactive element—buttons, links, and the like—into a tighter frame. This approach typically ends in a chaotic user interface, with buttons that blend into their surroundings, text that’s a strain on the eyes, and images that are only clear under a magnifying glass.

First Things First

Another significant advantage of the mobile-first approach is that it intuitively aligns with presenting information on a simple page that reflects the true significance of each piece of content or element the design team brings to the fore.

Laptops, desktops, and large screens afford the luxury of multi-column interface designs, allowing for a variety of information to be presented at first glance, rather than a single, focused idea. However, just as articles, despite covering various points, typically have one headline for a reason, a simple page on a website generally has its own purpose.

Mobiles naturally enforce a one-column approach, necessitating a thoughtful arrangement of information. It’s about guiding the user through content as they would find in a book—introducing concepts in a logical order instead of all at once.

Organizing information in a way that mirrors how users actually browse ensures a natural flow. However, this ideal often takes a backseat to accommodate diverse informational needs or to meet internal demands of appearing ‘above the fold.’ Such practices aren’t the best approach; they tend to inflate the design canvas, allowing for everything but prioritizing nothing. This dilutes the effort to properly rank information for the user—the person for whom the website is truly designed.

The Digital Touch

In the realm of digital interfaces, sliders—those sections of a webpage displaying a sequence of images—require user interaction to navigate. On touch-based devices, this is seamlessly achieved with a simple finger swipe. However, when adapting sliders for desktop use, we introduce two more input methods: the mouse and the keyboard, which has arrow keys for navigation. Neither presents a challenge; integrating keyboard controls doesn’t demand any visible design alterations, and while the mouse does, the larger screen estate of a computer accommodates this well.

Imagine we approach web design from a desktop-first perspective. Deciding on the interface layout, there appears no issue in implementing a dropdown menu at the screen’s bottom, such as a language switcher, or designing interactions that occur with cursor hover rather than clicks. However, the plot thickens when adapting these features for mobile. The hover-based interaction is off the table—there’s no cursor on a touch screen. For the dropdown menu, we’re forced into awkward workarounds, like making it expand upwards, which goes against the grain of user intuition.

It’s not just about the space: starting with mobile in mind forces us to consider how interactions will function, making them easier to adapt to other contexts compared to designing with desktop first. This approach ensures that interactions are naturally more flexible and user-friendly across all devices.

Savings Beyond Screen Size

A welcome byproduct of mandatory simplification is savings. The streamlining we’ve discussed, born from a mobile-first design philosophy, results in a website that’s less cluttered, occupies less disk space, and loads more swiftly. This isn’t just crucial because today’s users have little patience for slow-loading sites. It’s also vital for enhancing load speeds, a key ingredient in achieving favorable search engine rankings (SEO) for your site.

Another less direct but equally significant area of savings is in the iterations of design that the website will inevitably undergo. Sooner rather than later, a design conceived for large screens will, upon reaching the programming stage, need to circle back to the design team for revisions. This typically occurs when developers encounter interactions that can’t be coded as envisioned for a ‘maximal’ scenario and, at best, have been downscaled to a ‘minimal’ setup, only to find they’ve been shaped into something unfeasible. Why unfeasible? Either because such interactions don’t translate to the minimal scenario (like hover actions that don’t work on touch screens), or because, although technically possible, they render poorly on mobile, like interactive elements reduced to nearly invisible sizes to squeeze them in.”