Having realised this trend early, many websites introduced a mobile version with an address like m.website.com. Although this meant their website was then usable on mobile phones, it did add another website which had to be maintained.
Responsive Web Design (RWD)
The next wave of mobile innovations for websites is known as Responsive Web Design (RWD). Responsive websites can be created in more than one way. They all share the same basic principle of responding to screen size when displaying the website layout.
Because a good responsive website works on mobile devices and larger screens alike, there's no need for a separate mobile website. There are some challenges too though, mainly with media such as videos and images. Responsive websites often show different size images depending on screen size. One doesn't want to load all the image sizes when viewing a website on a 3G mobile connection as it would take ages. There are plenty of solutions though. When we created the responsive website of Awakenings, we made sure only the correct image size was loaded for that device.
Early day responsive websites faced more of these kind of issues. More often than not the problems were not a result of responsive websites, but a result of a shifting paradigm. For over twenty years everybody was used to creating websites for large screens, but suddenly they needed to adapt to smaller screens. This is where Mobile First comes into play.
Luke Wroblewski coined the term Mobile First as early as 2009. He has written multiple books, even today his book about forms on websites (2008) doesn’t cease to amaze. He is currently a Product Director at Google and is a firm advocate of everything regarding (mobile) usability.
Rather than first creating a desktop website, which is then adapted to a mobile version, mobile first is about creating the mobile website first and then adapting it to larger screens.
Mobile first is not just about web development, it's about a way of thinking right from the start of a project. When a project starts as a desktop-centered project, a lot of features will need to be stripped when optimising for mobile. When you start mobile first though, it means those extra features might not be added at all, until they are needed.
Mobile first is about thinking mobile. If you're an event organiser you want to show what your event is all about and you want to convince your visitors to buy tickets. People increasingly buy products and services on mobile devices, so it is essential to give them a good experience on the devices they use for buying. This fact should be taken into account when starting a project and not only after the desktop version has been thought out and created.
Mobile first and the Lean methodology
This way of thinking fits perfectly in the Lean methodology. When starting with a Minimum Viable Product, Rather than starting a product with all bells and whistles, one starts with the bare essentials and first proves there actually is demand for such a product. By carefully monitoring what people want, more features might be added later.
This might mean you will add new features for larger screens, but it could also mean utilising the sensors which are available in most mobile phones today, like GPS, camera or movement sensors. Rather than adding all at once you focus on what the user actually needs and then add things the users wants later.
The Lean methodology dictates you should focus on the most important first, mobile first gives you exactly that focus, by removing 'waste', which in this case are the features you might think of for larger screens.
Mobile first is not just another marketing term. It's a way of thinking, which helps us shift our focus to the most important things which require our focus. The largest group of users uses mobile devices, so this requires our attention the most.