Why "mobile-first" might not make sense in the long run

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There are probably more smartphones in existence today than there are people, if you were to add up the ones that are so last year and ended up in your drawer tucked away for some futuristic society to find. But the fact that they are so accessible today gives rise to the popular pattern of mobile-first design.

What is mobile-first design you ask? Let's start there.

Mobile-first design: Designing a webpage with a mobile display viewport as the default design model and then selectively designing for larger screens afterwards.

The idea behind the principle being that everything is going mobile and so we should be designing in that manner so that content is more accessible to everyone. This will help to prepare for the impending mobile future. I love the concept behind it, I really do. It just makes sense when you hear the numbers, and numbers don't lie. But they can be misinterpreted, and I feel that is exactly what is happening currently. Mobile numbers are high, but does that imply that "useful" mobile browsing time is also elevated? Or are we creatures of habit simply picking up our phones every 15 minutes to check on phantom messages that we hope arrive one day?

So today we'll dive into why the mobile-first paradigm makes sense for some and why I personally do not follow it. The answer might not surprise you and might change the way that you approach your next coding project.

Everything IS going mobile

Each and every day more and more people get their hands on a mobile-device of some kind and each year new companies design applications for these devices. Everything from shopping applications to photo sharing and money transferring apps are getting built and worked on a daily basis pretty much. Anything that has an 'application' to it, is getting a digital application. Makes sense, for sure.

But these applications normally take seconds to use for the most part. When you pay with your phone or when you Google Map a location, you are only interacting with the app for seconds at a time. These are becoming transitory experiences that run in the background for us, so that we can focus on other things. Such as life.

It might be better to not think that 'everything' is going mobile. But that things that should be mobile-friendly finally are. But that doesn't mean that we can stop everything right now, take our phones out, learn Jiu Jitsu, write the next great novel and then create the soundtrack to the inevitable movie that will follow it.

What isn't going mobile?

Let's jump here next, because it seems this is the part that most people will ignore. And we can't have a conversation about why mobile-friendly is super important without discussing when it just doesn't matter. Most of my personal web surfing isn't mobile. For one, I'm normally sitting in front of a computer when I'm doing my job, such as now. And a giant browser is just sitting there. It would be foolish to take my phone out to view the web on a tinier viewport. When I'm working and need to Google things, it's highly beneficial for me to have a large real-estate where I can pull up multiple pages and set them aside on a dual-monitor display.

And this is true for many of us out there in the working world. We can't just be on our phones for minutes (hours) at a time without feeling awkward or someone noticing.

I tend to write a fair amount of content per day, and not once has the thought I need to do this on my phone occurred to me. My laptop again has a giant keyboard that I can type on a relatively fast pace. So any type of writing tool for sure would not provide much benefit on a mobile architecture.

Shopping still isn't something that I tend to do on my phone. I may browse and peruse through various apps. But at the end of the day, if I'm going to spend any kind of money on something I tend to do a fair amount of research first. This involves multiple tabs of reviews, images, specs, etc. And there are countless other day to day tasks in which having more space just makes it better.

Which brings up my main point.

Ingesting content is still difficult on mobile

Have you ever tried reading code on your mobile phone in order to solve a bug? It's not fun. There's a fair bit of horizontal scrolling that needs to take place in order to get the gist of things. Or have you ever spent an hour on your phone writing a blog post? Maybe, but probably not. Have you ever put your laptop aside, taken your phone out and began studying for you next class?

Sure, if you are waiting in line at the grocery store you more than likely will take a peak at your phone for some good old fashion ignoring people and maybe read a news article. And if you add up that time then 'technically' you can say that 100 million Americans spend more time on their phones than their computers. But again, correlation does not imply causation. Maybe people are spending more time on mobile devices because it takes longer to ingest data that way. On my browser, I can have a hundred tabs open each with a full-desktop view and more visible content.

But more importantly, I'm also around other applications that my PC has. I have code editors, database management tools, word editing software all open and working together with the browser to get something done.

On my phone, I have a browser essentially. Which is why companies are now toying around with the idea of foldable screens and dual screen devices, like the Microsoft Neo and Duo and the infamous Galaxy Fold. They aren't focusing on more 'mobile-friendly' interfaces. In fact, they are going back to bigger screen real-estate. In the next 10 years, mobile-friendly might not even make sense if phone screen sizes continue to grow dynamically in size. And we might end up with 'massive-friendly' pages where the entire website is one giant panel that we can scroll around (patent pending idea).

My website

While 100 trillion people might own smartphones, they aren't coding on them that's for sure. This blog for example averages around an 85% desktop user base per month. And the time spent on each article is also relatively higher on desktop, which makes sense as some of my content is longer and takes more time to consume.

This blog works on mobile just fine. You can read articles and search for content. But most of the features that I end up building for my users require more space, and as such, they don't tend to appear on mobile. And while I can totally find unique ways to render these things on a phone, that would require a considerable amount of time and energy. And focusing on the 10% instead of the 90% is not a good business strategy to follow.

So should you follow the mobile first pattern? That might depend on various elements, such as the type of website you have, your employer and your month to month traffic. If for example your company is spending most of its marketing budget to target users using mobile ads, then you'd for sure better hope that your mobile experience is as seamless as can be. But if 99% of your traffic is coming from Windows 7 users on PC's and laptops, then you should focus on that instead.

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