March 13, 2024
UI/UX Guide

Mobile First Design Guide

Explore mobile-first design, where UI/UX starts with mobile, ensuring optimal functionality and seamless transition to larger screens.
Cristi Fonea
March 13, 2024
Mobile First Design Guide

There are over 4.6 billion active users on the internet as of 2024. And 92% of them – 4.32 billion people – access it by mobile phones. On the other hand, tablet or desktop users make up only 65% of active internet users. 

So, if you’re not already prioritizing the mobile-first design approach, you should start now!

Twenty-five years ago, we were still using landline phones to communicate with each other. But times have changed. Our phones are not just accessories or simple communication devices. They have become a lifestyle for all of us in this digital world – especially the younger generations. Let’s face it – for most of us, the first and last thing we do when we wake up or go to sleep is to check our phones. 

The reality is that the number of users using mobile phones to access the internet is only growing and growing. And the increasing number of app downloads can prove just that. Estimates show that by 2025, the number of mobile internet users is expected to jump to 73%, compared to 55% as of 2023. 

So, what is mobile-first design exactly? What are the benefits, and how do we implement this approach? Don’t worry! We’ll answer all these questions below. 

What is Mobile-First Design?

The mobile-first design rule represents the idea that UI UX designers (and developers) start the process of creating a digital product from the mobile end. 

This means that the mobile version of an app or website is designed first and then scaled up to larger screens. So, we start from the dimensions of a mobile screen, and then we adapt its features and translate them into the set of dimensions of the other devices to create these versions as well. 

Yes, by starting a product design from its mobile layout and developing its mobile structure, we can make sure that our digital platforms are optimized for our primary users. And as research shows, mobile users will more likely predominate. 

But it’s also about recognizing that mobile users have different needs and constraints from desktop or tablet users – needs that must be considered if we want to offer a seamless user experience. And it’s obvious – mobile phones have smaller screens. And smaller screens have limited space that might not be able to fit every animation we want. So, when we adopt a mobile-first mindset, we are forced to create a structure that not only makes sense but also includes only the necessary elements. This way, we can ignore all the fluff that might only confuse our users. 

So, rather than creating the design of the desktop version of an app or a website and then later trying to adapt it to mobile phones, we can just start with a smaller screen from the beginning. And let’s face it – it’s so much easier to expand and scale up a mobile screen than it is to shrink a design originally intended for larger screens.

The focus on creating mobile-first products isn’t just a trend or a matter of accommodating a specific market of our audience. It’s about prioritizing creating user experiences that cater to the needs of our users. And lately, this has become a necessity. 

But the mobile-first design rule isn’t a new concept. In fact, in 2010, Eric Schmidt, who was at that time the CEO of Google, explained that all designers should implement the “mobile-first” approach in product design. 

“What’s really important right now is to get the mobile architecture right. Mobile will ultimately be the way you provision most of your services. The way I like to put it is, the answer should always be mobile first. You should always put your best team and your best app on your mobile app.” – Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google. 

Why is Mobile-First Design Important?

We all know that we live in a mobile-first world. And modern product design has proved this right. And the truth is that adopting a mobile-first design has several advantages. 

• Increased Engagement

By prioritizing the needs and expectations of mobile users, we can ensure that we offer an increased user experience. Less code means fewer bugs and a faster loading time. Because of this, it also results in increased engagement, which only leads to higher conversion rates. In fact, research shows that businesses that have implemented a mobile-first design approach have grown 64% in conversion rates compared to the standard desktop conversion rates. 

• Improved SEO Performance

Search engines prioritize mobile-friendly websites when ranking search results. For this reason, when we design our website focusing on mobile devices, we can make sure that we will improve product discoverability. This way, we will attract a lot more organic traffic and increase our organic visibility. 

• Improved Advertising Rates

As businesses, one of our primary advertising sources comes from social media. And let’s face it – we mainly use our phones to access these platforms. Automatically, the website or app will also be accessed through our mobile phones. So, with a mobile-first design approach, we will make sure that these sponsored ads will be converted. 

• Increased Efficiency in the Design Process

As businesses, we love mobile-first designs for one simple reason: it’s fast and convenient. Creating and developing a complex desktop platform requires many resources – resources that many of us might not have. Plus, let’s not forget that there is always the possibility of our boss not even liking the final design. 

But the mobile-first approach starts small. As UI UX designers, we don’t need much money or extensive time to finalize the design prototypes for mobile platforms. After all, starting with mobile-first inherently fosters a user-centric mindset. By prioritizing the mobile experience, we're compelled to focus on the core features and content that actually matter to our audience. This ensures that when we do scale up to larger screens, we still maintain a user-friendly and efficient design that resonates with our audience.

• Scalability

When starting from a smaller screen, we can ensure that our designs can easily fit into a large device as well. And let’s face it – it’s so much easier to expand and scale up a mobile screen than it is to shrink a design originally intended for larger screens. And it’s even easier first to create the architecture of a mobile layout and adapt it to a desktop layout rather than the other way around.

What Are The Principles of Mobile-First Design?

The mobile-first design approach is composed of four principles: 

1. Adaptive Web Design (AWD)

Adaptive Web Design is a web design approach that involves creating multiple platform versions to fit different device types and screen sizes. This means that as UI UX designers, we will manually build separate non-flexible layouts for specific device categories or screen resolutions:

  • Smartphones: 4’-6’ layout;
  • Tablets: 7-11’ layout;
  • Desktops: 12’ and over layout.

In an adaptive web design method, the web server detects the user’s device or screen size and automatically offers the appropriate version of the site. If the users’ screen size doesn’t match the predefined versions, the website may have blank spaces or content cut off or partially hidden. Because of this (plus the extra work and resources necessary to design multiple versions), it was replaced by the responsive web design (RWB) approach. 

2. Responsive Web Design (RWB) 

Responsive Web Design is a more modern version of the adaptive design. RWD is a web design approach that uses a single, flexible layout that allows platforms to adapt and translate into different dimensions automatically. This means that regardless of the device – whether it is a smartphone, a desktop, or a tablet – our design will always work perfectly and maintain an intuitive user experience across all devices without manually manipulating the layout.

A responsive website will scale up or down according to our users’ display width – even if it’s changing one pixel. For this reason, our designs will need flexible layouts and dynamic grid systems with elements that automatically adjust in proportion to the device’s screen size. 

3. Progressive Advancements

The Progressive Advancement approach is usually applied before responsive web design is implemented. This approach represents the idea that the most basic product version is created first and includes the core features. So, when we start designing the more complex layouts, even more interactions and functions are added. Progressively, yes, the website or app evolves into a more sophisticated structure. But it all comes from a simple foundation. 

For example, think about developing a weather forecasting app for smartwatches, smartphones, and desktops. In its initial stage, we can create an app displaying the current temperature and weather conditions for a single location – this is the interface for the smartwatch. 

Progressive advancement is considered one of the best practices in the mobile-first designing process. Why exactly? Well, as businesses, our goal is to have a simple and versatile platform that functions seamlessly across different browsers and screen sizes. This is especially true for businesses with limited resources or those at the beginning of their road. This way, we can introduce layers of design in proportion to the needs of users and prevent the overloading of design elements. 

Progressive Advancements in UI UX Design
Progressive Advancements in UI UX Design

4. Graceful Degradation

Compared to the Progressive Advancement approach, where we start from simple, with the Graceful Degradation approach, we start by creating the most complicated product version. Now, we build all the features that we want and shrink them down to fit on a smaller screen. This way, we delete any additional and complex elements to make them compatible with the other sets of dimensions. 

Let’s get the context of the weather forecasting app again. Normally, desktop users will access the full-featured version of the app with advanced features, including interactive maps, detailed weather data, and additional features. But UI UX designers will strip away from these complex features to create the UI design of the smartwatches. 

Graceful Degradation in UI UX Design
Graceful Degradation in UI UX Design

Why Do These Principles Matter in the Mobile-First Design?

Well, easy – because the mobile-first approach is built upon the foundation of all of these principles – especially the Responsive Web Design and Progressive Advancement approaches. 

We have already established that we start the product design from the mobile end when prioritizing the user interface and user experience of the mobile version. This way, we create the basic version first, and only later do we add other layers. This is the same principle as the progressive advancement approach. Even more so, because many mobile-first designs are built with HTML, they work well on all browsers. This way, it allows UI UX designers to create quick responsive versions on multiple devices as well. 

How to Implement a Mobile-First Design? - Mobile-First Strategy

Now that we have understood what a mobile-first design approach is, let’s see what steps and practices we should keep in mind when designing. 

  1. Mobile-First = Content First

In the mobile-first design world, there is one rule we should remember: the content is key. As UI UX designers, we should prioritize content first over anything else. This means we must offer our users exactly what they are looking for – especially on the first interaction. 

This is why we should identify what are the primary needs of a user and what type of content and features we must implement to meet those needs. After we have identified what we want to show our users, we must create the structure to include everything on the primary page(s). From those core features, think about how additional elements can be integrated into our layout without compromising the functionality of the platforms. 

We recommend making a list full of features and content that you would like to place on your platform. From that point, only choose the most important elements that are necessary to be in the most visible and eye-catching locations – usually at the top or bottom, depending on your platform.

  1. Create a Visual Hierarchy

Now that we have established what elements you want to include in your platform, it’s time to create the visual hierarchy and rhythm of the page. This will help our users scan and identify the relevant blocks of information much easier, which will improve the overall user experience. 

In UI UX design, there are usually certain principles to consider when establishing a visual hierarchy:

  • Hierarchy of Importance: The most important content should stand out the most.
  • Logo: The logo is usually at the top of the platform. 
  • Contrast and Color: Use contrast and color to highlight important elements and create visual distinctions.
  • Size: Larger elements draw more attention. Use it to emphasize the hierarchy of importance. 
  • Whitespace: Make space for whitespace to create separation between elements and to avoid clutter.
  • Visual Cues: Use icons, illustrations, and other visual elements to direct our user’s attention towards specific elements. 

These are just a few aspects that we should always consider when implementing a mobile-first design approach. And remember! The purpose of a visual hierarchy is to guide users through our design. Not only should it look aesthetically pleasing, but it should also be intuitive to understand the content. 

  1. Design For Touch

One aspect that all UI UX designers should remember is that human fingers are different. This is because they lack the precision of the pixels that mouse cursors have. So, it’s important to create large buttons with space for hyperlinks. 

Even more so, because of the limited space, the whitespace must be designed wisely so that the interactive elements have sufficient whitespace surrounding them. On average, each touch element should be between 45 and 57 pixels in width to accommodate our users’ fingers. 

  1. Optimize Navigation and Performance

Before starting the design, develop the mobile wireframe that lays out the basic structure of the product. So, think about where our users might look to find certain elements and how they will interact. 

Start by implementing a logical and intuitive menu structure. After ranking and organizing your content in step #1, you can prioritize the essential content in the main navigation. Use a Header, a Navigation Bar, a Navigation Rail, or a Sidebar – depending on your platform’s needs. Maybe consider mobile-friendly navigation patterns like a hamburger menu if you have a website or app with multiple sections. Avoid introducing unnecessary content in the primary navigation. 

  1. Responsive Design 

Although we’re designing for mobile screens first, we should make sure that we use flexible grid systems, images, texts, and other visual elements. This way, we can easily adapt it to multiple screen sizes, and the layout still looks and functions well.

Let’s look at the Chicago Tribune mobile website. It’s one of the first newspapers to adopt a mobile-first approach, so what can you notice about it?  

Chicago Tribute Mobile First Design
Chicago Tribute Mobile First Design

  • Content First: The Chicago Tribune prioritizes content over decorative elements – which is expected from a news platform. Headlines, articles, and images are at the center of attention so that users can quickly access the latest news and stories. 
  • Visual Hierarchy: The app is designed to engage users with its content. Headlines are displayed in larger fonts and even bold styles, while visual cues, such as images, complement headlines to make them visually appealing and informative. 
  • Navigation Buttons: Navigation elements – the hamburger menu – offer their users easy access to various sections of the website. 

What does a Mobile-First Design approach look like in practice?

There are many practices when implementing a mobile-first design, but let’s get back to the basics and understand how exactly UI UX designers would approach this in real life. 

Let’s say that our business wants to develop a platform for therapists. 

  • What will the platform do? Users will easily talk to therapists – texts, calls, and videos. 
  • What are the must-have features? User profiles, therapist listings, appointment scheduling, and messaging chats with the necessary features. They are usually structured through mobile navigation bars.
  • Where can we add the other additional features? Structure the app in a way where users can intuitively find the other features as well but still focus on the core functionalities.

Mobile-First Design Best Practices

We have established what we must take into account when creating a UI UX design for a mobile screen. So, let’s go through the best practices that will make sure our mobile-first design is flawless.

  • KISS!: We all know the concept of “Keep it simple, stupid!”. Well, this is the case for the mobile-first design process as well. A simple UI UX design will make it easy for our users to understand and navigate our platform, increasing the user experience. Plus, we can’t go wrong with a simple and minimalist. And, let’s face it – this is the purpose of all mobile apps – to be aesthetically pleasing and intuitive.
  • Avoid Unnecessary Elements: This goes hand in hand with the “KISS” and “Content-First” principles. Prioritize content over anything else and avoid unnecessary and possibly disruptive elements that can create visual noise, which can clutter the design. 
  • Optimize for Speed: If there’s one thing that mobile users expect is fast loading times. So, it’s essential to prioritize speed optimization. This involves using compressed images and minimizing the volume of HTTP requests. This way, we can significantly decrease loading times. 
  • Design With the User in Mind: As UI/UX designers, we should remember to keep the user in mind. Because, after all, we’re creating this app for the user and the user only. So, try to understand their needs, desires, and frustrations, and keep them ingrained in your mind. Don’t forget – if it doesn’t bring any value, then you might be doing it wrong!
  • Test On Multiple Devices: There’s one rule in UI UX design – always test! And always test it on real devices with real end-users. With this, we will see how our app works, looks, and functions across multiple screen dimensions and device types. We will also see our app with different eyes, being able to spot issues – both in the user interface and user experience – and address them before going live. 

One thing is clear – mobile phones have taken over the entire world. And guess what? They will continue to do so in the future, as this phenomenon will only grow more and more. So, if our platforms are not designed and optimized to meet these needs, they might not even stand a chance in this competitive era.

uinkits – Our Figma Design System and UI Kit 

We at uinkits understand the importance of inputs in great user experiences and creating amazing UI designs. That’s why we’ve developed a Figma UI Kit with design components that include these essential UI elements that enable you to design intuitive and user-friendly interfaces effortlessly.  

“You press the button, we do the rest,” – Kodak.

Inspired by this iconic tagline from Kodak, we believe in simplifying the design process for you. Our Figma UI Kit, uinkits, is a complete design system with UI components that allows you, as a UI UX designer, to create your products as quickly as pressing a button. 

Our design system includes UI components, variables, cards, buttons, and everything you need for your design process. All you have to do is take your UI design component needed, and you’re ready to use it in your designs!

Cristi Fonea
March 13, 2024

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