Forget Mobile First, Think Mobile Only



Nearly five years ago Luke Wroblewski, formerly the Chief Design Architect at Yahoo! Inc, advocated a radical new concept. Shocking the audience of web developers at An Event Apart in Seattle, Wroblewski announced that it was time for ‘mobile first!’ Given an undeveloped app market for the 700 million people with mobile devices globally at the time (that number has since more than doubled), he believed that mobile offered an opportunity for explosive growth that products for PCs could not match.

He also underscored the importance of constraints and capabilities that mobile realities enforce and provide for product managers, a critical factor for innovation that Peter Sims has detailed in Little Bets.

Until recently though, mobile development has still come primarily after a product has been built for web. Much ado has been made about ‘responsive design,’ which, while better than nothing, wasn’t the point Wroblewski was trying to make. ‘Mobile first’ doesn’t just mean that mobile shouldn’t be an afterthought – it means that mobile should be the primary focus for product development.

I’d actually argue that ‘mobile first’ isn’t as important for enterprise product managers as ‘mobile only.’ That’s because ‘mobile first’ still defines mobile products in the context of some future web product, while ‘mobile only’ enables product managers to realize the potentials of both mobile and web without limitation.

And in the past few months, we’re finally seeing this trend. Writing for Fast Company, Jared Newman spoke about the superior user reviews Facebook’s Paper receives compared to Facebook’s standard app. He states that “although Paper is built largely around the same photos and status updates you get from Facebook’s main app, it doesn’t feel like something that was merely retrofitted to the phone.”

Newman also points to Google’s new app, Inbox, and Microsoft’s Sway as examples that the ‘mobile first’ trend is finally kicking in. But although Inbox and Sway both have web versions, they act as standalone solutions with features and benefits obviously directed toward the fast-paced and compacted requirements of mobile users. In reality, they co-exist with advanced and popular web products and aren’t merely mobile iterations of future web products.

But industry leaders in tech aren’t the only ones building ‘mobile only’ solutions. A few days ago, The Economist announced ‘The Economist Espresso’, an app available for iPhones and Android devices that delivers a “concentrated, stimulating shot of global analysis that can be consumed quickly as part of your morning routine.” The app is offered as a free add-on to print magazine subscribers or as it’s own subscription service otherwise.

Again, organizations aren’t just moving toward building mobile only products because they reach a wider market or place useful constraints on product management. There are numerous other reasons, and they’re grounded in the principles of user experience design. Time and time again, the experiments we run at Alpha UX illustrate that users demand a strictly unique set of features and components for mobile experiences. These can’t be achieved by simply scaling down a web experience to a small screen. But they can and will be achieved by an effective mobile-only approach.

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Nis is a full-stack marketer with an obsession for storytelling and UI/UX. He is an award-winning web and app designer, and is the co-founder and product marketer at Alpha UX. You can follow him @NisFrome and read his stories on Medium.