It is becoming increasingly rare to meet someone without a smartphone in their pocket. In the past five years, the use of mobile phones has surpassed desktops—according to research by Statista mobile website traffice is at 54.8% in 2021. Whether users are just browsing or looking up specific information or service, it is vital that you offer a smooth experience of your website on mobile phones. Any kind of loading delay or navigational niggle can send valuable customers straight to your competitors. To avoid this, many websites take the mobile-first design approach.

In this article, we cover what mobile-first design is, why it’s important and some tips to get your mobile-first design underway.

three people standing around looking at their mobile phones
Illustration by OrangeCrush

The lowdown on mobile-first design

Everyone started to pay attention to the concept of mobile-first design back in 2010, when Eric Schmidt, then CEO of Google, announced at the Mobile World Congress that the company’s designers will be increasingly focusing on smartphone users and their needs. “What’s really important right now is to get the mobile architecture right,” said Schmidt. “Mobile will ultimately be the way you provision most of your services… the answer should always be mobile-first.”

two mobile screens of a cash back app
By Ivan Pina

So what is mobile-first design anyway?

Mobile-first design is creating screens and designs that fit for the smallest screens available, the mobile phone. This means the designs will be optimized for the user’s experience on a smartphone and display the very essential features and information that your users want.

The small screen size forces the designer to hone in on what’s really important. After establishing what content you need to show, more layers of functionality and content can be added for tablet and desktop. This approach is called progressive enhancement and if you get it right, you will always be delivering the right version to the right screen.

What you want to avoid is called graceful degradation—designing a snazzy desktop website and then having to strip it of its elements so it fits on a mobile screen, possibly losing your message or functionality along the way.

What’s the difference between mobile-friendly vs. mobile-optimized vs. responsive design? Find out here >>

Benefits of mobile-first design

Ease of access

Well thought out mobile-first design guarantees a smooth user experience, meaning your website will always display correctly (with no distorted images or weird text breaks), regardless of how it is accessed. Opting for mobile-first design allows you to build a strong base to which you can add more features when it’s accessed via a tablet or desktop.

Not only that, by designing mobile-first your designs will focus and prioritize your content by placing the key information and functionality at the centre of your designs. This makes it easier for your users to access what they need right away.

two people evaluating and examining three mobile screens
Design by OrangeCrush

Attract customers

Today, Google’s algorithm actually favours mobile-friendly websites so by ensuring a great experience on mobile, you improve your discoverability, as well as those all-important conversion rates. And one of the best ways to create a mobile-friendly website is to design with mobile-first in mind.

When you create a smooth and pleasant experience on your mobile, your visitors will keep coming back. Imagine needing to look up something quickly on your phone and encountering a difficult mobile website! That would send visitors screaming away in frustration.

an app animation of a scroll through a mobile design
By Adam Muflihun.

Stay ahead of the game

You know that when you take the mobile-first design approach you are designing for the smallest screen. Scaling up to larger screens will be easier than scaling down to smaller screen sizes. When you start here you can avoid graceful degradation as mobile technology evolves.

This means your website will stay looking fresh for longer. And instead of trying to cut and scale back your website, or making haphazard fixes to your website, you can take the opportunity to get ahead of your competitors.

Responsive website design for a golf course
A clean, responsive website design for a golf course by Technology Wisdom

It pays to be mobile-first

Mobile-first design is increasingly the industry standard as users now expect mobile sites to be fast, concise and clear, whether they’re providing sports stats or shoe sales.

You don’t want your mobile site to display incorrectly or slowly. Research shows that a one-second delay in page load times causes a 7 percent loss in conversion and 11 percent fewer page views. But when you design with a mobile-first approach you already have to avoid overloading your website with fiddly ads or pop-ups, and visual asset sizes.

That way you’ll develop a seamless and pleasant experience for your users, you’ll keep up with your competition, and even be ahead of the curve.

The basics of mobile-first design

advanced Tech Mobile Website for B-Driven - The Sports Apparel Co
A mobile site for B-Driven, a sports apparel company, by Archangelo

When thinking about a new project, strongly consider starting with a design for mobile and building on this to create a fuller website with more content and functions.

You can get started with mobile-first design by following the basic guidelines and tips below.

A mobile site can, and should, still look slick and answer all your users’ requirements, so think about the content that people are looking for. Do they come to you for train times, restaurant opening hours, or advice for where to get the best drink in town?

Provide this information in a clear way above the fold, keep images bright and attractive (though don’t forget to resize them for mobile), lose any non-essential pop-ups and distractions, and if you need to give further information, make the navigation easy to tap on with one finger.

Learn about the fundamentals of responsive website design >>

Our top mobile-first design tips:

  • Give your users the content that they are looking for quickly
  • Keep things simple: use easy-to-read typography, make text readable, ditch pop-ups and ads, add a helpful search engine tool
  • Make your calls-to-action bold and clear for easier conversion
  • Add easy-to-read navigation buttons that store additional content in the hamburger menu at the top
  • Loading speed is key: strip your mobile-first website of unnecessary elements, build on this pared-back design to create a fuller offering for tablets and desktops.
  • Don’t forget to prototype! You need to know if your site works in the real world so do test your designs and code on actual mobile devices

Check out our guide to mobile-friendly web design for more >> 

various screens of a mobile design
By Andrew Grzesiak

Tap, tap, boom!

As more and more of us access websites on the go, it is vital to present a mobile-friendly version of your offering. And what better way to do this than thinking of mobile-first design. Though some might think of it as pared back, a great mobile web designer can make mobile-first design dynamic, functional and fun too.

Want to get the perfect mobile-first design for your website?
Work with our talented designers to make it happen.
About the author

Sonia Zhuravlyova is a London-based journalist who writes about architecture and design for publications such as Monocle, Dwell and The Modern House.