What Does ‘Mobile First’ Mean To You?

Everyone talks about being “mobile-first”–but what does that actually mean?

What Does ‘Mobile First’ Mean To You?
[Image courtesy of Death to the Stock Photo]

What does it mean to be “mobile-first”? We asked you, our readers:


As consumers, how do you expect your favorite brands to present themselves on mobile? And as mobile designers, business owners, or marketers–is a mobile app necessary, or is it enough to design your website for mobile browsers?

What resulted was an excellent conversation, with insights from the consumer, designer, and commercial perspectives. The interesting, though less than comprehensive, definition that we came up with was that ‘mobile first’ goes beyond the native app versus mobile web debate. It means that the decision go with one, the other, or both must be made based on your consumers’ specific needs. And it means asking “What new things can we do with mobile? And how can we use them to enhance our services?”

Understand Your Consumers’ Needs

Mobile-first thinking for a brand, product, or content provider means that your mobile strategy is determined by knowing which form better serves your users’ needs.

Pam Negoro said it best: “Consumers today move freely between devices (smartphone, tablet, laptop) and each device has a specific role based upon what the consumer is seeking. Therefore, brands and retailers must have a deep understanding of the consumer to create optimal content and user interface to meet the consumer need for each device, context/occasion and experience.”

Here are two real-world examples of that ‘mobile first’ thinking in action: The first comes from Zachary Landman of the mobile patient-doctor communications service DoctorBase, who explained that DoctorBase decided to switch from a mobile app to a HTML5-based platform when they realized that “the energy of downloading an app, remembering logins and passwords, etc., was too great for most patients who only message their doctor three or four times a year at most.” This decision to base their mobile strategy on their users’ habits lead to a massive increase in usage.


The Wall Street Journal’s mobile and social teams are also thinking mobile first. Liz Heron, the head of the WSJ’s Emerging Media desk, explained to Fast Company that the WSJ is changing the way it produces some of its news based on its knowledge of readers’ mobile habits. “As soon as they wake up they roll over in bed and they’re looking at their iPhone or Android phone. They’re sitting up in bed with it before they go to sleep…We think a lot about the fact that people aren’t watching news on a TV screen, they’re watching it close to their face, in bed, almost like being curled up with their favorite book. So how we shoot things is evolving.” The news industry is facing some big changes as more people access the news on mobile devices, and it’s people like Liz Heron who will come out in the lead by understanding and responding to changing user habits.

Enhance Your Users’ Experience

Robyn Garafalo made a simple but important point when she said, “an app should improve the basic experience.” That statement played a big role in the debate kicked off by Scott O’Hara, who asked, “Why should someone have to download a separate app(s) to get an optimized version of a website’s content?”

After some discussion, our Branch participants concluded that it is pointless to make an app that recreates a brand’s website–but a well-built mobile app provides the opportunity for brands to improve and expand upon that basic experience.

As Cameron Clayton of the Weather Company explains, “big data and mobile enable our world to be more personal, local, and social.

A native app can use mobile capabilities to collect data such as consumer preferences, behaviors, and locations–and then use that information to offer contextual solutions that makes your users’ lives easier.


A great example of this is the way that the social, local shopping app Pavo plans to help people discover products and businesses that they will love by using mobile technology to provide customized ads and alerts based on users’ current locations. Pavo combines the benefits of social and mobile tech with the personalized, real-world connection that is provided by the ‘brick and mortar’ businesses, stores, and brands that you love. If you’re passionate about being vegan and you post photos of cruelty-free delicacies, Pavo will suggest nearby veggie-friendly restaurants, photos of their dishes, and even give you the option to order from their menu.

Mobile first does not mean simply having a mobile presence. It means thinking strategically about if and how mobile functionality can enhance your product, service or user experience.

A big thank you to Pam Negoro, Paul Rupport, Robyn Garafalo, Scott O’Hara, Chris Folin, and Christine Trampota for a great conversation.

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About the author

Cecelia Bittner is a journalist, gardener, and graduate of NYU's Studio 20 program. She produced Fast Company's "Mobilizing" series, which aims to build a network of millennial women who are using mobile to innovate in their fields.