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Why You Need To Use A Mobile First Design Strategy for Web in 2024

November 20, 2023

John Hawley

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Web Design

What’s the most helpful device in history? Hint: it’s what mobile-first design is about…

ARTICLE HIGHLIGHTS:

  • Mobile first design is more important than ever, with over 50% of all web traffic coming from mobile devices.
  • When crawling and indexing sites, Google now prioritizes mobile versions of websites. The adjustment reflects Google’s recent increased emphasis on mobile consumers.
  • Google will minimize desktop crawling after the move is complete in order to conserve resources.

So if you guessed a smartphone, you get full points! With mobile devices, you can stream videos, check your email, play games, order groceries, or have food delivered right to your door. And of course (and most importantly for this article) you can browse the internet. I’d say it’s already at the point where you have to wonder what can’t it do!

Of course, this wasn’t always the case. Before the mid-2000s, there were a lot of legitimate reasons you wouldn’t think of mobile as a legitimate way of using the web. Between limited, slow, and expensive mobile internet access, lack of mobile-friendly technologies, and primitive mobile browsers — experiencing the web primarily through mobile was still kind of a novel concept.

While mobile internet access has technically existed since 1997, widespread access has existed since the mid-2000s. It wasn’t until the early 2010s that the internet started accepting mobile devices as a legitimate way of accessing it. Since then, it’s rapidly grown as the main way people interface with the internet. In retrospect, it seems pretty obvious nowadays, given how often we’re glued to our smartphones! 

And there are no signs of slowing down with that, either. Mobile will continue to become even more dominant as time passes and technology improves.

Today, with those issues almost entirely resolved, it’s now the most used device for accessing the internet — and not by a small margin, either! Nearly 96% of internet users will access the internet with mobile phones, whereas laptops and desktops now sit at nearly 63%, with tablets and other devices sitting below 30%.

If you’re at home relaxing on the couch and you remember you need to look up restaurants to visit that night, will you get up and boot up your computer? Not a chance! I’d bet you’re going just to whip out your phone and google it (no judgment, I’d do the same)!

Mobile devices are the main way people use the internet now — so it shouldn’t be too surprising to hear that over half of all the website traffic in the world comes from them, too! 

As a result, mobile-first design for websites has continued to become more relevant than ever before. So much so that Google is now using Mobile First Indexing — which means that Google now predominantly crawls your website’s mobile version for indexing and ranking on their search results page.

What is a Mobile First Design Strategy?

As you might imagine, the Mobile First design concept is pretty self-explanatory. 

Mobile-first design is a website design process that prioritizes designing the mobile experience before adapting it to larger screens. It’s all about thinking small—literally!

Or making sure it’s a top priority. You never have to sacrifice one for the other. We always make sure to deliver the same brand experience across all devices.

To tell you the truth, mobile-first design has already existed for quite some time. Google has long telegraphed its decision to move towards mobile by having adopted a mobile-first design strategy and philosophy since 2010. So, in hindsight, it’s no surprise that they are moving towards using mobile-first indexing and ranking SERPs. 

The Mobile First Design Approach is Important Because

Other than the fact that mobile traffic has eclipsed desktop traffic, there are legitimate reasons why it makes more sense for you to create your website’s mobile experience first. Among those benefits you’ll see are thoughtful content prioritization, responsive design, accounting for touch-based interfaces, better performance optimization, and, of course, some juicy SEO benefits.

And there’s always a need for webpage speed! Slow-loading web pages are a sure way for people to bounce.

Content Priority

Since the real estate of a mobile screen is much smaller than a desktop monitor, prioritizing content becomes all the more critical in the mobile-first design strategy.

As such, this philosophy engages you to take a more strategic approach: you have to be more thoughtful of what content needs to be prominent on the page and define what’s the core message, key products, or most vital information for your users — so they’ll be more easily able to find the information they’re looking for without being overwhelmed by too many or unnecessary details. 

The Bottom Line: Mobile First Design emphasizes the need for content prioritization on mobile websites, compelling designers to predominantly display critical content of sequential importance to ensure a better user experience.

Mobile Website responsive design

One of the most essential practices that has spawned from the mobile-first design approach is responsive design. Nowadays, there are a zillion different mobile devices to choose from — which means there are also a zillion different screen sizes to go along with them. So if you tried to create a layout design for each possible size manually… well, let’s say you’d make Sisyphus’s job look pretty easy.

As a result, mobile-first design for websites has continued to become more relevant than ever before. So much so that Google is now using Mobile First Indexing — which means that Google now predominantly crawls your website’s mobile version for indexing and ranking on their search results page.

Enter responsive design. In its simplest form, responsive design allows you to create a website that seamlessly responds to any screen size or device, giving you a consistent experience regardless of which device you’re using it on.

Web designers and developers enable this by using flexible grids, layouts, and images that fluidly and automatically adjust based on the size of the device the user is using.

Fluid responsive design is why I’m a fan of using Divi by Elegant Themes on WordPress — its builder allows you to streamline sizing and settings for every module across all device sizes, cutting down on development time.

The Bottom Line: Responsive design techniques allow websites to work fluidly and accommodate according to the size screen the user is viewing your website.

Mobile design touch-based Interfaces

As such, the mobile-first design places significant importance on touch-based interfaces. You must optimize buttons, links, and interactive elements to be touch-friendly, ensuring they’re appropriately sized, well-spaced, and easily tappable.

Using well-designed touch-based interactions, mobile-first websites provide users with an intuitive and effortless navigation experience, enhancing usability and making their visit feel more natural and enjoyable.

Touching a mobile device is like clicking a mouse on a desktop — it’s second nature now! However, how we interact with websites on our mobile devices is vastly different from how we do so on a desktop PC.

Touch-based interactions include tapping, swiping, pinching, and other gestures that users employ to navigate websites and interact with content.

Hover actions and animations, for example, are standard on desktops but are not permitted on mobile devices because you can only touch the device or not. There are no “in-between” states… So, developing any hover interactions on desktop first would necessitate re-engineering the experience to operate on mobile. That is why you should adopt a mobile-first design philosophy instead: this way, you can design the site so that people understand how to interact with it intuitively, resulting in a better overall user experience.

The Bottom Line: Touch-based interactions are the primary way to interface on most mobile devices. As a result, a mobile-first design must focus on making everything touch-friendly, from the buttons and navigation menus to any other interactive elements.

Mobile Performance Optimization

With mobile network technologies like 5G now achieving speeds that are becoming comparable to home internet connections, the demand for a fast-loading site is higher than ever, especially on mobile devices.

However, mobile devices still face limitations that their desktop counterparts don’t need to worry about—for example, spotty connectivity and the mobile device’s computational power.

Applying a Mobile-First design approach ensures that you’re optimizing from the bottom up. If your website loads fast on mobile, then you can be sure it will also load fast on desktop—but the reverse isn’t always true.

Performance optimization isn’t just about enhancing user experience; it also has a crucial role in search engine rankings.

In short, better performance = better SERP rankings = better conversion* (if you have good web design)!

The Bottom Line: While mobile networks and devices are improving rapidly, there are still limitations compared to a stationary PC with a stable connection to the internet. Mobile first design emphasizes optimizing performance so your site loads fast on every single device.

We can’t stress the need for speed enough! There are too many options on the web, users aren’t going to wait for a slow website to load.

Mobile Website SEO Benefits

As I mentioned before, Google very recently introduced an update to their algorithm, which now uses your website’s mobile-first indexing on their SERPs. If you’ve been religiously following Google’s algorithm updates, this is probably no surprise for you, since they first introduced an update favoring mobile-optimized sites back in 2015.

Google, like any reputable business, has its user experience first and foremost in mind. So you can see why they’d rather award a better rank to a website that can provide their clients with a better mobile experience versus those who don’t.

This is to say that websites that have a poor mobile experience will be negatively impacted by this change. So, I would recommend making your website mobile-friendly a very high priority if it isn’t already.

Remember, with the increasing use of mobile devices for local searches, making sure your site is mobile-friendly website is more crucial than ever for your SEO – search engine optimization.

Remember what I said about looking up restaurants on the couch earlier? Well, it’s especially true on the go as well — mobile is often a user’s first choice for searching for businesses to solve a problem they have. So having a site that takes advantage of mobile first design will help you with local search visibility – big time!

The Bottom Line: With mobile devices as people’s first choice for accessing the internet, Google now uses mobile websites primarily for indexing purposes. This makes mobile-first design more critical than ever in terms of organic discoverability in SERPs.

In my experience with mobile-first design, it’s crucial to make strategic choices to ensure a user-centric experience. Typography, button sizes, and content prioritization are just a few key elements of that experience you need to nail down. Let’s look at a couple of strategies you can implement in your mobile-first design approach.

Content Prioritization: Since the viewing experience on mobile devices is vertical, websites are more centered around scrolling down the page rather than having a ton of horizontal space to lay out your content. As such, the mobile-first design emphasizes the importance of choosing your “stacking order” wisely.

The goal is to place the content you need your viewers to see toward the top of the page. Since user attention spans are limited, not including the most important content up top risks your viewers not finding what they’re looking for. 

Typography: Choose easily legible fonts that are easily read on smaller screen sizes. There’s no need to get funky or artsy when it comes to body copy. Elegant and easy to read is the halmark.

A good rule of thumb to use is to choose fonts with a taller x-height — this refers to the height of the lowercase letters. Fonts with taller x-heights are much easier to read at smaller sizes, which is a perfect use case on mobile.

You can still use flashier fonts for larger-sized headings, but for smaller body content, I recommend using an easily visible sans serif.

We use Google’s Open Sans for a majority of body copy text on websites. Part of the reason is the amount of space—known as “kerning”—between characters. Google describes Open Sans as “optimized for print, web, and mobile interfaces, and has excellent legibility characteristics in its letterforms.”

Button Sizing: Buttons are a cornerstone of website design — and on mobile, they must be sized appropriately. The sizes of our fingers are static… we can’t exactly change that! As such, your buttons should be big enough to be pressed comfortably on mobile devices. And if there are multiple buttons next to each other, ensure enough spacing between them so your users don’t misclick on the other one by accident.

As a result, mobile-first design for websites has continued to become more relevant than ever before. So much so that Google is now using Mobile First Indexing — which means that Google now predominantly crawls your website’s mobile version for indexing and ranking on their search results page.

Button Placement: Where you place your buttons is just as important as how big they are. Take a quick exercise yourself. Holding your phone without shifting it in one hand, how far can your thumb reach out comfortably? Unless you’re Mister Fantastic, probably not that far. The last thing you want to do is make it difficult for someone to click your CTA button while they’re still on the fence. 

The exception to the rule is your navigation buttons (like a hamburger menu): this is fine because the user is already trying to go elsewhere, so you’re not breaking their flow on the current page.

Popups Suck: The best practice I can offer for popups on mobile can be summed up with one word: don’t.

I don’t personally know a single person who has ever said, “Oh boy, a popup advertisement!”. And I feel pretty safe betting that the same is true for you. Sure, they can sometimes have their place — but that place is not on mobile devices! Be judicious when applying a pop-up and ask yourself if you truly need it.

Once again, I’ll refer to the smaller real estate you have on a screen… and how annoying it is for A) your whole screen to shift focus abruptly from what you were doing. And B) how hard it can be to find maliciously small or hidden “X”s to close out of them. Make sure you have a super easy way to exit a pop-up if you need to apply one.

Performance optimization techniques

When designing, you must keep mobile webpage speed in mind — it’s non-negotiable! While mobile networks have made significant progress in catching up to traditional internet at home, it’s still crucial for your site to load fast for your user experience. And since your mobile speed is also tied to SEO, having a faster mobile experience will also bump you up in the rankings.

Proper Image Sizing & Compression: While your images may resize responsively, if they were sized for desktop use, you’re killing your mobile load time. Remember, mobile devices are physically much smaller than PC monitors, so images can be saved at a smaller pixel height and width and still display crisply. This will save your users from waiting longer to download your images and using more of their network data.

Limit Animation: While website animation adds an extra layer of intrigue and interactivity, if you aren’t judicious, it can weigh down your site’s speed, especially on mobile. Test your page speed frequently and use only as many animations as your website and host can handle.

Video Use & Compression: Video is a fantastic way to differentiate your website, and if it’s a high-quality asset, that can make your site really stand out. However, video file sizes are usually pretty large in dimensions and file sizes. Converting your video file with proper compression and encoding or using next-gen formats like WEBM can save you a lot on file size.

Also, you should always consider using a container with an external link to YouTube or Vimeo. This way, you don’t have to host the large video file locally.

Premium Caching Plugins: While this is technically a cross-platform upgrade, it’s still important to note the importance of its use on mobile. Using a premium caching WordPress plugin like FlyingPress will allow you to leverage a full suite of speed improvements like Lazy Loading, Minifying CSS/JS, and many other options to boost your website’s speed on mobile (and every other version of your site)!

Invest in a Good Hosting Service: This one is another cross-platform upgrade, but this is where it all begins regarding speed. You can optimize your website as much as you want, but it will only get you so far if you aren’t using a high-speed hosting service.

Your hosting provider can have one of the biggest impacts on webpage speed

If you’re looking for one of the best WordPress hosting platforms, I’d recommend Rocket.net. We have seen a dramatic increase in performance since switching to this hosting platform, which includes Enterprize Level Cloudflare.

Getting a 90-100% Google performance score on Lighthouse has always been extremely challenging. We started on A2 Hosting, switched to Siteground, and finally chose Rocket and the Flying Press Caching Plugin. For our business website and our clients hosting.

You can really get into the weeds regarding hosting. The bottom line is we can now easily achieve a 90-100% score within specific parameters. Elements such as page animation or video banners will cause a lower score, but we still see excellent performance scores even with the aforementioned items.

Please keep in mind no hosting platform will resolve issues of poorly optimized images or websites loaded with unnecessary bloat.

Having a quality host will also allow you more leniency in optimizations that give you way more flexibility in creating a site that impresses on mobile. Our new hosting platform has been a game changer.

As a result, mobile-first design for websites has continued to become more relevant than ever before. So much so that Google is now using Mobile First Indexing — which means that Google now predominantly crawls your website’s mobile version for indexing and ranking on their search results page.

Testing and validation

Cross-device Testing: It goes without saying that testing mobile first designs on real mobile devices will give you an accurate depiction of how your website works in the real world.

The more devices, the better. You can also use browser developer tools like Browserstack to test your website on thousands of real devices and browsers to ensure your mobile site works consistently on as many devices as possible.

Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test: If you ask me, there’s no better way to test your website’s user-friendliness than using PageSpeed Insights. This tool will systematically break down every single pain point on your site — even some pretty granular stuff — and tell you how to improve on it.

While it can be pretty strict, it’s the best way to ensure compliance with Google’s new mobile-first indexing standards.

Where does it all go from here?

Lately, with the rapid advancements in technology, I think we’re going to start seeing the gap between mobile and other devices widening faster than ever before. From a purely technical standpoint, as mobile computational power and 5G connections improve, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that mobile websites won’t have any performance restrictions soon. The overall quality and experience will be taken to unprecedented heights. 

While it will probably take a bit more time, I can also see voice interfaces, content personalization based on AI algorithms, and augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) having the potential to transform how users engage with content. Of course, this is speculation, and only time will honestly tell!

At Mighty Fine, we believe in embracing these advancements and getting our clients ready for the future of mobile-first design. If you’re eager to leverage mobile first design and elevate the digital experience of your website, let’s schedule a conversation and take the journey together.

We’re positive you’ll like where we go.

Author

John Hawley
John is the lead designer at Mighty Fine and has been crafting visual solutions for clients for over a decade. Hailing previously from Boston, John graduated from Northeastern University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Graphic Design. Outside of work, he enjoys drawing, writing music, and playing video games.

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