My thoughts on mobile first dogmatism OR Why mobile first makes no sense 95% of the time
Nowadays, most people in managerial software development (Product Managers, CEOs, usually not the people actually building the product) adopted the notion that “Mobile First Design” is the way to go. In the following paragraphs I will try to explain, deconstruct and debunk the notion that is “Mobile First Design” and why you can stop worrying about it.
First, let’s take a step back to define what “Mobile First” actually means. With the drastic increase in mobile devices accessing the web from the early 2010s onwards, web designers were inclined to come up with solutions and workflows to produce concepts that worked on different screen sizes.
Some people came up with the assumption that starting a design concept on the smallest screen size and then extrapolating the layout to larger screen sizes, was a much better way to ensure good user experience on small devices, than working your way down from large screen designs. This was endlessly reposted and generally accepted as the one-size fits all for every use case. Like many other dogmas in software development, the assumptions underlying this conclusion were never fully questioned or scrutinized. Most articles pretending to engage in critical analysis are in fact pure bias confirmation.
As a software developer, with quite a bit of design experience and having worked on numerous responsive web and software projects - I can attest, this makes no sense to me.
The central purpose of design in media is to structure information (Text, Images, Video) in a digestible and engaging manner. Desktop devices give us a bigger canvas to work with, hence allow for more complex layouts and information structure. In comparison, mobile devices impose certain limits due to their screen size (in regards to maintaining text readability), user interactivity (a touch screen instead of mouse and keyboard), hardware and network performance.
To use the analogy of image resizing or compression, it certainly makes sense to resize an image to one tenth the size if the original image resolution is ten times greater than the target display. The inverse does not, as enlarging an image by an order of magnitude will result in a large pixelated mess with lots of unwanted artifacts.
We can observe similar problems, in regards to video, music and even text compression. You can certainly summarize a scientific study or an elaborate novel to a few condensed pages, retaining only the most relevant information. You will find it hard to extrapolate the entire story of The Lord of the Rings, just by reading the back cover.
Continuing to build on the point outlined above, referring to information compression, I will go as far as to declare that “Mobile First” as a design paradigm to be not only suboptimal, but plainly wrong. It disregards and reverses the most basic tenet of information compression. It assumes that you will be easily capable of inflating an uncompressed medium (a mobile screen design), which is not the case. In reality, “Mobile First” will lead to desktop layouts that look overly repetitive and boring.
I suggest nobody is even able to follow the concept of a purely linear approach when designing layouts, going from mobile, to tablet, to desktop, without moving in the opposite direction, without adding new widgets and stylistic elements and without jumping between screens to accommodate for all intricacies.
The counterpart to “Mobile First”, is sometimes coined as “Responsive Design” or “Graceful degradation”. It means starting out with a larger desktop screen design and reducing complexity with every intermediate step towards mobile. You can skip the Newspeak, they’re just meaningless buzzwords for people to use in meetings when they want to sound knowledgeable. It is more important to understand the underlying concepts than to learn the empty symbolisms.
Most commonly, people will imagine to be doing “Mobile First”, while not doing “Mobile First” at all. Just like people commonly imagine to be doing “SCRUM” or “Kanban”, while doing neither to the letter. It makes them feel important when they can use big words like “Stories”, “Five Whys” or “Fast Lane” (By the way, did you know Toyota invented Kanban? Who would’ve thought -sarcasm off).
At the meeting table “Mobile First” is just used as a vague term to emphasize the fact that you’re not going to ignore how the product is going to look for a majority of online users. The endless descriptions, Medium articles and showcases of how “Mobile First” will save you much of your precious time and nerves, rarely feature any pragmatic reference to people using it in their workflow. They’re just revealed scripture.
Let’s examine the inverse. Now that I’ve written the above - what does that make me? Obviously that makes me a “Mobile First”-heretic. By criticizing and emphasizing the paradigms absurdity, I committed the mortal sin. Since “Mobile First” is the best way to do things and I’m not for it, I must clearly be against efficiency and mobile devices in general. Now soon to be painted with the broad tar brush, who’s going to take me serious anymore? Who’s going to hire me? Certainly not the HR and product managers at big tech companies nodding in silent agreement, while their head of UI design talks about the advantages of “Mobile First”. Can I hear an Amen? - Aaamen
What I’m alluding to, is obviously the Groupthink (a term coined by Orwell and elaborated on by Irving Janis) we can witness in the tech industry. The very centerpiece, the internet, was branded as a space for free and open exchange of ideas. Reality looks different. Large state owned or private institutions defend their vested interests and dissidents are ostracized. For large corporations, it’s sometimes easier to publish more propaganda than to change their way of doing things or (heaven forbid) admit that they were wrong.
To have the title not be completely misleading, I can imagine one situation where “Mobile First” actually makes sense - app development. Since the majority of the users will be on small devices like phones, extrapolating or “stretching” the app onto tablet size, might actually be the smartest way to go about things.
There’s no need to overly emphasize the fact that the above mentioned “Graceful degradation” (excuse the Newspeak), is the superior concept, pragmatically speaking, it is the only one that works properly and that most folks are doing anyway. I assure you, nobody is creating a desktop design from a mobile design, unidirectional and ends up with something remotely visually appealing. Sophisticated designers are always switching back and forth, adjusting gradients, background images and stylistic elements, according the current screen’s requirements.
Although “Mobile First Design” is inconvenient in it’s purest form, it is certainly possible to create a desktop design from a mobile screen design, by retaining the color scheme, fonts and general design language. Just like it’s possible for a symphony orchestra to play a Nokia ringtone from the late 90s. But that’s not the same thing. This is what I was referring to above with people “imagining” to do “Mobile First”.
“Mobile First Design” commonly infers coming up with a fixed set of elements that are to be reorganized and reused on larger screen sizes (think, an orchestra of Nokia phones). As soon as you start to invent new elements for every successively larger screen size - that’s not “Mobile First”, that’s just multi-screen design (which is perfectly fine).
Now you might say: “Just because you can’t imagine it or you can’t do it, doesn’t mean it’s not possible”.
Well, it sure might be possible, that doesn’t make it good, that doesn’t even make it halfway decent. My central point is this, “Mobile First” is just a buzzword, a symbolism referring to a paradigm that doesn’t exist in reality. It should be called “Mobile Also”, but that wouldn’t work - not nearly catchy enough (remember “America First”?).
That’s all I have to say, I hope you enjoyed the article. Feel free to share or leave a comment below.