Mobile-first design: What you need to know

Nick A. | May 10, 2022
10 mins

If someone asked you how many lakes there are in the U.S., you’d probably pull out your smartphone and have an answer within seconds. (The answer, by the way, is around 250.) When you’re on the go, you want answers fast, and thanks to that web-cruiser in your pocket, there’s no need to save your questions for later. In fact, by 2025, an estimated 72.6% of internet users will only access the web through their mobile devices — that’s roughly 3.7 billion people. 

To meet these customers where they are, your website needs to feature a mobile-first design that is easy to navigate, read, and browse. Mobile-first design is taking priority among designers, search engines, and visitors alike. What does that mean for you and that new website you're planning to build for your brand? Learn the ins and outs of mobile-first design in this guide.

What is mobile-first design? 

Mobile-first design is when a website is built to prioritize viewing and navigation on smartphones and similarly-sized mobile devices, as opposed to primary viewing on computers. This design principle takes into account the cramped constraints of a smaller screen first and foremost. Larger screens like laptops and desktops are secondary in mobile-first design, although those versions of the website are still beautifully designed.

e-commerce website mobile version
Photo by PhotoMIX Company from Pexels

Why should you prioritize mobile-first design?

When you go mobile-first, there are some obvious pros, like built-in accessibility for the billions of smartphone users and the consideration of smaller spaces. Let’s unpack a few more perks.

  • The bounce rate is lower. Your bounce rate refers to the number of visitors who come to your site but don’t explore other pages — they simply view one page and leave. If someone visits your website and it doesn't function correctly on their smartphone, they’re less likely to explore your site and more likely to go somewhere else for the information they want. By catering to a mobile-first view, visitors are much more likely to stick around and take the action you want them to take when they come to your website.
  • Mobile-first websites rank higher. In July 2019, Google implemented mobile-first indexing, which pushed mobile-friendly sites closer to the top of search results for their targeted terms. Sites that don’t prioritize mobile-first views simply can’t compete as well as they once did in a crowded landscape. If your web design prioritizes mobile-first, then the likelihood of visibility and conversions is increased, especially if your site pops up on the first page of search engine results — the main goal of Search Engine Optimization.
  • It can help retain and convert customers. One of the primary functions of web design is to keep your visitor interested and lead them to take action. If a new visitor stumbles upon your site, is intrigued, and decides to stay, then they just might find something that interests them on your website. And if they’re interested enough to take action by making a purchase or signing up for a newsletter, then they just might return for more. Make it easy for them to find the information you want them to find, whether that's a scheduling button, an email newsletter signup, or the checkout.
  • Mobile-first sites are often simpler. Going back to basics is a good thing! Some developers and business owners may opt for a more straightforward design with less complicated content and fewer features, which provides an excellent user experience. That sort of trimmed-down approach may have an impact on several parts of the site, including load times and improved navigation, which could contribute to keeping customers on the page and engaged for longer.

Mobile-first design vs. responsive web design

It’s important to know that mobile-first and responsive design aren’t the same, even though these terms sound similar. A mobile-first site is responsive. However, a responsive website isn’t necessarily mobile-first. The biggest difference between the two is the web developer's path to site building. 

In short, responsive websites are reactive: They “shapeshift” to fit the confines of various devices with the initial blueprint using a desktop as the framework. Mobile-first responsive design is the opposite. Here are some of the most significant differences between these two approaches.

Smartphones are prioritized. This is a conscious decision to cater to smartphone users. Going mobile-first means your viewers should have an optimal mobile experience out the gate.Smartphones are secondary. Responsive web design requires more work to accommodate smartphones. Modifications bend the content’s structure to fit different devices, but the content and layout will determine how easily it adapts. 
Progressive advancement. Mobile-first designs prioritize simpler layouts and features, which perform better on smaller screens. As the site is accessed from different browsers and devices, other features and content may be added back in.Graceful degradation. This design philosophy prioritizes the most up-to-date browsers first in terms of user experience and then scales backward to accommodate for other browsers and device types. This approach is not as effective for mobile, as it may put those browsers last in priority.
Short and sweet. Prioritizing the layout of your site on a smartphone is ideal for minimal content. There’s no room for fluff — the priority goes to getting visitors from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible.More room for content. Responsive design benefits information-focused websites since there’s physically more space on the screen to display information. It’s also easier to fit more complicated calls to action and lengthy forms.
website mobile version on a smartphone
Photo by Sven on Unsplash

6 practical tips for mobile-first design

Now that you know what mobile-first design is and why it’s important, let’s break down the pragmatic tips for a successful design strategy.  

  1. Put content first. Content is key for any site on any device because smartphone users search the web for information. Since smartphones present the exciting challenge of less space, effective mobile web design only includes the most relevant content. Creating a content inventory (spreadsheet of copy) helps determine the most crucial points.
  2. Implement visual hierarchy best practices. Online mobile readers don’t want to search for the most vital information. If you know your users and what they’re looking for, organize your content in a way that makes the most sense for what the visitor wants or needs. For example, a blog should promote the latest posts first above the fold on the home page. Visual hierarchy is also one of the best ways you can ensure coherence and usability for every visitor to your site.
  1. Keep it simple. Your smartphone screen is much smaller than your laptop or even your tablet, so after organizing your essential content in order of importance, make sure that all features are simple to use, or change or remove features that aren’t mobile-friendly. Additional elements on a page can distract visitors from the carefully crafted content you created. 
  1. Check that all elements work. Maybe you already have some mobile design ideas in mind, but the bells and whistles you want on your site have to work everywhere. Proper function is key to a positive user experience, so make sure that all links, videos, menus, and anything else you can think of work as intended before launching your mobile-first site into the universe. 
  1. Make it easy to navigate. If visitors can get to what they want quickly and easily, then any user, regardless of their intent before landing on your site, will be satisfied with its accessibility. Features like the hamburger menu and suggested search terms at the top of a page generate a clean interface interaction. 
  1. Test your website. Just like anything else, it’s necessary to test your site on a mobile device to make sure it’s functioning in the way you intended. So test before you go live and then keep testing even after it’s live to make sure your users always have a first-rate experience. 

5 mobile-first design examples

Curious what a mobile-first design looks like in action? These examples demonstrate how some popular brands cater to the smartphone-first experience.

1. YouTube

YouTube’s mobile-first design applies the best practices of web development for smartphones by prioritizing content and intuitive navigation. When you look up the online video sharing platform on your phone, the single-column layout features recommended content at the top and an easily expandable comment section. Plus, if you scroll a bit below the fold, there’s a “playlist” of content for you to enjoy next. It’s no surprise that YouTube, the second-most visited website in the world and a Google property, is designed to be mobile-first. 

2. MTV

The media conglomerate has its online content arranged hierarchically, so the latest news stories and episodes are at the top of the homepage. The hamburger menu in the top left corner is easy to spot, and when you tap it, the menu options are legible. Sure, there’s a bit more text than YouTube, but the content isn’t overwhelming. MTV makes it simple to find what you’re looking for or to effortlessly browse. 

3. Chicago Tribune

Now, a newspaper will have even more text than the first two sites combined, but it can still exercise mobile-first design best practices. Pioneering the mobile-first newspaper web design movement, the Chicago Tribune has its name right up top, and it gets right into the latest news stories. They know that their readers came to read the news, so they make it accessible.

4. Airbnb

The vacation rental company Airbnb has a mobile site that also employs an information hierarchy — starting with the most important form, which directs users to input the time and location of their intended stay. It gets straight to the point, and then just below the fold, it has a CTA to learn more about hosting and sharing your space to earn some extra cash.  

5. Apple

The tech giant is known for its sleek, sophisticated, and minimalist style. Their mobile site has all of the basics of good web design — plus an attractive touch that compels users to browse their latest offerings with stunning imagery of the latest products. Oh, and its load time is impeccable. 

On the move with mobile-first 

Billions of folks around the world spend lots of time with their small-screened companions. And for many, a smartphone is the primary device used to access the web. As a result, mobile design is no longer a “nice to have” or an afterthought. When it comes to building a website, it’s essential that phones are prioritized before laptops and desktops. Tools like Namecheap’s Site Maker can help you every step of the way in building an accessible, mobile-friendly website — no coding skills required. Just remember to follow the tips above to ensure an unbeatable user journey. 


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Nick A.

Nick Allen is a writer, photographer, and content marketer. He’s also the founder of BrainBoost Media, a boutique content and operations studio. With a wide range of interests, he enjoys reading and writing about sports, entrepreneurship, and start-ups.

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