Mobile First is a design concept that has taken off; to the point of becoming almost more of an understood principle, rather than a philosophy. It sounds smart and the people rooting for it are visionaries. But the numbers don't support the development and design directions these people are advocating. Not yet.
"Mobile first" is the concept of designing for mobile before designing for web. "It's easier to add things in than take them away" the argument goes. I'm a big fan of designing specifically for mobile, but first just doesn't make good business sense.
The numbers agree
Take the chart to right. This the mobile vs. desktop breakdown (tablets not included) as of October 2012 for the web as a whole (from gs.statcounter.com). On the one hand, boy is that a lot of mobile users; on the other, if you had to pick just one of these user groups to focus on, which would it be? Yeah, desktop is the clear winner here.
Give it 5 years (tops) and these number are very likely to be reversed. Keep that in mind as you're planning, but hopefully you're planning on revamping your design within the next 5 years (imagine if Apple's website still looked like this). Besides, I'm not saying forget mobile. I'm just proposing you take a "mobile second" approach. It's an issue of focus.
Meet your customers where they're at (desktops first)
Businesses thrive or die because of their focus. This is why it's absolutely critical that you focus on your customers where they're at. Statistically, most of your customers are still on desktops. These users are—and will continue to be for awhile—where you should invest the majority of your attention. These users warrant your primary focus, and their own custom tailored experience.
Desktop users do not merely deserve a larger version of your mobile site. This is the most common misstep with mobile first design.
For the sake of discussion, let's assume you don't have to pick just one, you know you're going to do a mobile site. I still say "mobile second." And when you do look at mobile, look at it from the perspective of your mobile users. Mobile users don't want less information, they need it presented differently; desktop users aren't just looking for more non-essential bells and whistles or larger images.
Mobile users aren't simply smaller desktop users
Maybe this is obvious, but a smaller screen isn't the only thing that separates your mobile users from your desktop users. They have an entirely different set of goals and needs:
- They have less time
- They're not at their desk
- They're less focused
- They're probably after something specific
The list is not all inclusive, nor a blanket statement; the point is users on mobile deserve to be catered to as individual users just like desktop users do.
Mobile user's aren't looking for a more trimmed down version of your website, they want a complete experience tailored to the reality of their hardware.
The core issue and the solution
I don't actually care what order you design in. The problem I have seen with mobile first design is that it results in less focus on a group of users. Often this leans toward alienating users on desktops; somehow it often instead means alienating mobile users (important content never makes it to the mobile site).
Focus strategically. Focus on your desktop users primarily, give them a great experience. This is still where your money comes from. If mobile is warranted and will fit in your budget, give it the focus it deserves. Give your mobile users the different experience that will help them interact on their terms. Don't simply trim: tailor.