Think like a consumer

Why adopt a mobile-first development strategy?

“We think mobile first,” stated Macy’s chief financial officer Karen Hoguet, in a recent earnings call with financial analysts.

A quick glance at the US department store chain’s 2015 financial results explains why mobile technologies might be occupying minds and getting top priority there. Sales made by shoppers over mobile devices were a definite bright spot in an otherwise disappointing year for the company. Mobile revenues more than doubled, in fact, thanks to big increases in the number of shoppers using smartphones and tablets not only to browse, but also to buy.

So it’s no surprise that Macy’s hopes to maintain this trend, by continuing to improve the mobile experience it offers. In the year ahead, Hoguet explained, this ‘mobile first’ mindset will see Macy’s add new filters to search capabilities, clean up interfaces and fast-track the purchase process for mobile audiences.

Other consumer-focused organisations are thinking the same way and the phrase ‘mobile first’ has become something of a mantra for many. One of its earliest high-profile mentions came way back in 2010, in a keynote given by Eric Schmidt, the-then Google CEO (and now Alphabet executive chairman), at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

“We understand that the new rule is ‘mobile first’,” he told attendees. “Mobile first in everything. Mobile first in terms of applications. Mobile first in terms of the way people use things.”

The trouble is that, for in-house development teams, a mobile-first strategy still represents something of a diversion from standard practice. They’re more accustomed to developing ‘full size’ websites for PCs and laptops first, and then shrinking these down to fit the size, navigation and processing-power limitations posed by mobile devices.

The risk here is that what they end up with looks like exactly what it is: a watered-down afterthought, packing a much weaker punch than its designed-for-desktop parent.

A development team that has adopted a mobile-first strategy, by contrast, will start by developing a site for mobile that looks good and works well on small form factors, and then ‘work their way up’ to larger devices, adding extra content and functions as they go.

That approach will make more and more sense as more ‘smart’ devices come online and the desktop PC becomes an increasingly minor character in our day-to-day lives. Take wearables, for example: many CIOs believe that headsets, wrist-mounted devices and the like hold the key to providing workers with relevant, contextual information as and when they need it, whether they’re up a ladder in a warehouse or driving a delivery van.

Developing apps for these types of devices present many of the same challenges associated with smartphones and tablets: minimal screen real estate, limited processing power and the need to integrate with third-party plug-ins and back-end corporate systems. Then there’s a lack of standardised platform for wearables to consider, meaning that developers may be required to adapt their mobile app to run on numerous different devices. For many, it may be better to get that hard work out of the way at the very start of a project.

In a recent survey of over 1,000 mobile developers conducted by InMobi, only 6% of respondents said they had created apps for wearables, but 32% believe they’re likely to do so in future.

The same rules apply to a broader category of meters and gadgets that make up the Internet of Things, from meters for measuring gas flow in a utilities network, to products for ‘smart homes’, such as the Canary home-monitoring device, to virtual reality headsets, such as Samsung’s Gear VR, as worn by attendees at Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s keynote at this year’s MWC.

As the population of ‘alternative’ computing devices grows, developers will begin with a lean, mean mobile app, which functions well despite the constraints of the platform on which it runs, having made all the tough decisions about content and function upfront. Then, having exercised some discipline and restraint, they’ll get all the fun of building on top of it, to create a richer experience for desktop devices.

More importantly, they’ll be building for the devices that consumers more regularly turn to when they want to be informed, entertained or make a purchase. In the US, digital media time (or in other words, Internet usage) on mobile is now significantly higher at 51% than on desktop (42%), according to last year’s Global Internet Trends Report by Mary Meeker of Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (KPCB).

In other words, developers should go mobile first, because that’s what we consumers increasingly do.

 

Picture Credit: Farzad Nazifi

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