The Real Truth About Mobile First

May 18, 2015 — Leave a comment

“Mobile First” is a phrase that has been added to the buzzwords hall of fame in the recent years. It’s a paradigm shift and a phenomenon really. You need to be living mobile to understand how to get it right…

Ben Evans wrote a post about Mobile First that mostly resonated with me, although it left me feeling that it doesn’t even capture the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what Mobile First really is about. As someone that has been doing mobile longer than mobile was really a thing in the mass market, it doesn’t get closer than this in terms of living the experience of Mobile First.

A discussion about the flexibility of the PC and the restricted environment of the mobile is fundamentally flawed and misses the forest for the trees. Life is inherently mobile. We don’t stay at one spot forever. And life is inherently complicated with many different dimensions — we have family, colleagues, friends, jobs, hobbies, routines and so on and we assume several roles in each of those dimensions. A device that ties you to a particular physical spot or is only observing your behavior when you are actively interacting with it is hardly the flexible one. One could argue that a device that is always with you, listens to you, knows your environment, knows the people around you and knows your hobbies and routines is inherently flexible. But in fact, it is more nuanced than that. When we argue about flexibility in favor of the PC, we are really talking about the flexibility provided to me, the user, when I actively decide to engage with that device. What we are discussing in the context of mobile is just how much scope there is for the device to understand all my needs and be flexible to those needs. Ben Evans concludes, based on the latter, that the mobile is the true Internet device and the truly flexible one. I’d broadly agree with that.

Now, all that doesn’t even begin to explain what Mobile First means. A Mobile First design studies the user and the system from the perspective of the mobile in entirety. Time and time again, I have seen terrible choices made in product, design and engineering when “Mobile First” hasn’t become part of your thought process in a deep rooted way.

If you are an engineer that hasn’t made a conscious effort to understand mobile-first architecture, you potentially make some of these blunders:

  • Protocol designs that show no consideration for how wireless interfaces work or what drains the battery (you send packets whenever you feel like it, in whatever sizes you feel like)
  • Battery optimization is an optimization (in computer science, you are taught not to optimize prematurely, so you postpone this)
  • You allow apps to do anything they please in the background
  • You don’t get what the big deal is with debates around push vs pull. You think it is a po-tay-to po-tah-to debate that is a waste of your time.
  • You don’t get why 20MB is a large footprint; you are almost dismissive of memory constraints.

As a web designer trying to bring your design to mobile, you may be:

  • Still thinking about ‘clicks’ and ‘buttons’
  • Still designing for relatively long sessions
  • Forgetting the relative sizes of a thumb and a cursor

As a product manager transitioning to a mobile product, it is crucial to spend some time immersing yourself in mobile. Without that:

  • You may be still thinking about the user as someone that *wants* to be using your product. When we use our PCs, we clearly intend to be using it. When we use our mobile devices, we may end that interaction abruptly any time.
  • You may overestimate your user’s patience or tolerance.
  • You may not realize that options are a terrible idea

The reality is that your average mobile user:

  • Is impatient
  • Wants to use the phone whenever she feels like it
  • Wants the battery to last all day
  • Has no particular intent when she turns the phone on

But the fact also remains that the same average mobile user:

  • Is willing to carry this device literally every where
  • Enjoys customized experiences
  • Considers this device as the most personal device she has ever had

It is a paradigm shift — Mobile First is a phenomenon. It is most certainly the most flexible computer made till date. It is certainly where the computer knows you better than you know yourself!

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