Mobile First Implies a Broken Strategy

From my own past experience:

I may have a bias, but I’ve only rarely ever enjoyed any mobile platform when it can be compared to a its desktop counterpart. Aside from the fact that you can [marginally] access your content on the go and manage to geolocate whatever you are doing at the time, mobile interfaces are often sparse, dumbed down, and takes so much navigating to see and do what you want because of the limited space.

And this doesn’t matter whether it’s on iOS or Android (sorry Windows, I’ve never even picked up one of your phones to sample it). The point isn’t that I haven’t run into great software, the point is that mobile is a convenient partner to, and not a replacement for, a well designed desktop experience.

Take to note, this rant is more about a mobile UI/UX design when there is a corresponding desktop counterpart. For completely mobile only apps, this doesn’t really apply (though it can often make me wonder how much better they might be with a full fledged interface).

Is it a desktop worth interface? Not really, it’s just an embiggenized version of their mobile interface. Notice all the wasted space and the humongous search area filling a space that is compacted down on a mobile device to an appropriate size.

Desktop Interface is not a large Mobile Interface

I trade functionality, ease of use, information density, and all the other advantages of a desktop interface (easily open numerous tabs, multitask, save content locally, not worry about connectivity or data charges, and the list goes on) for that one thing mobile can give me: convenience of any time, any where.

For some, that tradeoff is simply unbeatable. For me, it straddles the lines of a trade off in functionality, UX, and HCI that sometimes I find absolutely unacceptable. The minute I sit there and wonder how much better this experience would be on a desktop, with a real keyboard and mouse, it’s failed.

Mobile needs to be a great companion to a desktop experience that wont make the user long for functionality of the desktop when on mobile, and visa versa. Mobile can certainly be first, but the desktop experience cant be second. And the same applies the other way around as well. You can design a great desktop experience, but don’t expect that to transfer it to a mobile experience. That’s well understood, and people do take care to “convert” their desktop experience into a mobile friendly one.

But sometimes I see people do a “Mobile First” design and then suddenly expect people to find that as something acceptable for the desktop interface. The UX is completely different on both, so one doesn’t really translate to another. Adding more columns or making it bigger does not make it “desktop”.

Which is why as much as I appreciate the concept of designing for mobile, “Mobile First” is an utter failure in understanding that what you’re really design for is data, and that data needs to be delivered in the most appropriate manner to each type of device, regardless of what you choose to do first.

Switching mindsets, abstract away.

As a programmer, the concept of doing “Mobile First” or even “Desktop First” is missing the abstraction that is really “User First”… and quite frankly “User Always” design. It’s also time to admit that the future is here, we’re going to have all kinds of devices that need to be taken into account. And “Mobile” meaning “Phone” is too rigid a definition.

At the moment, we can program for:

  • Web
  • Phones
  • Tablets
  • Watches
  • AR
  • VR
  • Voice
  • Thermostats
  • and the list goes on.

Yes, you will have to pick some core concepts that makes most sense for the majority of your users, and not all applications have a use for all the different types on interfaces available. But when designing something, as much as you want to take shortcuts to produce fast for every device under the sun by simple shrinking or expanding your UI as necessary, that’s only going to get you so far.

Sorry Google+, I don’t mean to abuse you so much. This is their html mobile interface. Feels a lot better than the bloaty desktop sized version, but it’s still a little loose on information space (blame Material Design)

And if you do it poorly, you’re going to put off more users than you retain. I’m looking at you Google+ with your “Mobile First” design that works fine on mobile, but looks awful when viewed on larger screens.

You can’t get away with it. You’re going to have to start thinking about properly fitting your data delivery to be contextually appropriate. If on a watch, keep it dirt simple and even limited in functionality. If in AR, you get to play with overlays. If in VR, you’ll need to make sure to immerse the user. On the desktop, offer great functionality and options, on mobile, pare it down a bit but give focus to what’s important and let people swap contexts to get what they need.

Which is why I do like Google’s new AI First paradigm shift, which means they’re going to design based on what sort of useful data they can deliver to the user. Which in turn means that they’re not going to think allow the shape of delivery to define their product. They need to morph the interface as needed and commit the resources needed to deliver whatever bespoke solution needs to be delivered so that the data works well on any device.

There is no silver bullet, and just because something is “Mobile First” doesn’t mean it’s appropriate for anything else. We need to switch mindsets and keep in mind that the world of interfaces is about to get a lot more complicated, and we’ll no longer have the luxury of a one-size-fits-all interface design.