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Your Guide to Designing for a Mobile-First Future

by Jaron Rubenstein
5 min read
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Don’t leave users squinting or pinching and zooming just to experience your mobile website. Help them make the most out of your mobile presence.

With nearly half of Google search traffic coming from mobile devices, it’s safe to say that most visitors will be accessing your site from their smartphones, tablets, etc.

Is your online presence prepared to accommodate these habits?

It needs to be, because the mobile and desktop experiences are entirely different playing fields. For pages that require heavy user interaction or are content-rich, a mobile-first design is especially crucial. However, simply designing with mobile in mind isn’t enough to deliver an outstanding user experience.

Shrinking web page content and organizing it to fit onto a mobile screen is an outdated design approach — akin to shoehorning an oversized foot into a small shoe. The content and user experience should be laid out in a mobile-first fashion, optimizing the mobile experience before scaling up to desktop. This ensures designs prioritize the most frequently used experiences on mobile before considering desktop interaction. In many cases, the constraints of less screen on a mobile device will lead to content layout decisions that also provide a more digestible experience for desktop visitors.

Understanding the Elements of a Cohesive Design

You can’t create a glitch-free mobile design without adopting the user mindset first. That’s why you should start with defining your audience and ensuring it is, in fact, the right fit for a mobile-first design.

Consider typical use cases for your audience and website. For example, if the primary audience is not likely to be at a desk (e.g., real estate consumers are likely to be mobile when looking for information and additional details about possible rentals), this should drive the mobile focus of your research.

However, with search engines now favoring mobile-friendly websites in their search results for mobile device users, simply looking at your existing website’s visitor analytics may not be enough. You may see less organic search traffic on mobile because your site has been reduced to lower rankings (it’s not already mobile optimized). Look at the disparity between your mobile traffic and desktop traffic for direct visitors and visitors from other sources — you can draw inferences from those analytics.

You can’t create a glitch-free mobile design without adopting the user mindset first

When reviewing an already mobile-friendly website, focus on how mobile users are interacting with your website, using metrics such as average time on the site, number of pages per visit, and goal-oriented funnels to estimate the benefits that a mobile-first redesign would bring to your visitors.

On a desktop, it’s easy to forget that fingertips are much less precise than cursors and need larger touch targets. Most designers are in agreement that the fold is dead, so worry more about ensuring your touch targets are large enough for fingers to easily hit and navigate with than keeping content “above the fold” on mobile.

Users also won’t wait for your website to load. In fact, 45 percent think this process should take two or three seconds. If your pages don’t load in a flash, you can expect visitors to navigate away even faster. Keep that in mind when considering supporting larger-sized retina images — and for media assets in general.

Optimizing every aspect of your site will guarantee the best possible user experience. Don’t leave users squinting or pinching and zooming just to read your website copy. To help them make the most out of your mobile presence, follow these six guidelines:

  1. Plan with small screens in mind. Make sure the particular typefaces you select are legible on smaller mobile device screens at the sizes you intend to use. Plan content layouts around mobile, and consider both portrait and landscape orientations for your websites and applications. Most importantly, don’t overwhelm users with text on these small interfaces.
  2. Design at resolutions people will use. Draft visuals with aspect ratios and pixel dimensions that align with your intended platform. If your design canvas matches the final display, and you regularly check your work at realistic sizes, you’ll be more likely to wind up with an optimal mobile design. Be sure to account for the standard UI elements of the mobile browser (device information bars, window title bars, browser navigation, scroll bars, and keyboard overlays) as well.
  3. Plan the touch state and position of navigation elements. Always consider the proximity of navigation elements to one another. Provide enough space so the user won’t inadvertently tap the wrong navigational element. Further, group together related page elements. Action buttons and the data they reference must be visible simultaneously for more interactive applications.
  4. Prototype and test on real-life devices. Use actual code on test devices and emulators to test your target audience’s critical browsers. Test special user interface elements like scrolling, dragging, and any other advanced UI to make sure they function as desired. You can also show interactive designs to your team and/or client to help identify common issues on small screens. Automated testing is a useful tool for many larger applications, but most automated solutions can’t definitively answer whether the user experience is acceptable on a mobile device. That’s where manual usability testing and analytics come into play. Leading design tools such as Adobe Preview CC, Sketch, and Skala Preview now enable previewing designs on mobile devices during the design process.
  5. Keep an eye on analytics. Monitor the user journey throughout the development process (and after it’s complete). Clients want quantitative ways to view a project’s success, so build in the analytics before it comes time to launch. Consider tools like Crazy Egg and Google’s In-Page Analytics, as well as heat map visualizations which show how much time visitors spend on a site and application pages, as well as other behaviors. Use these metrics to further enhance the user experience.
  6. Design iteratively. More specifically, design, develop, and test through iterative cycles, and expect features to change. Working on projects incrementally leads to an evolved, well-rounded solution.

As mobile continues to gain momentum, designers need to keep a pulse on the unique challenges users face and create pages that are intuitive — not interruptive. The user experience should be at the heart of all website and application design, mobile or not.

Companies that truly value the user experience will sharpen their competitive edge. When users can experience your site effectively on every device, no longer encumbered by distorted desktop layouts and frustrating site navigation, they’ll get to your offering faster and see why you’re truly a leader in your space.

post authorJaron Rubenstein

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