in interaction design, user experience

Don’t “design for mobile”, design for your customer relationship

Last night I saw Luke W give his excellent “Mobile to the Future” presentation. In it, he questions many of the interface paradigms and assumptions that underlay our desktop web experience, and demonstrates the power of thinking “mobile first.” He shares great ideas for improving mobile interfaces, many of which are applicable to desktop web as well. It got me fired up to overhaul our designs.

Relatedly, there’s been enormous buzz about mobile in the past week. Mary Meeker’s internet trend report seems mostly about mobile (Groupon is featured in slide 35!). Sheryl Sandberg recently claimed that every team at Facebook is now mobile first.

All this talk about mobile is necessary. However, it’s also misleading. In that it sets up a false distinction. The idea of “mobile first” or “design for mobile” is in order to contrast it with “design for desktop”. But, as the ascent of mobile demonstrates, “design for desktop” was also always flawed. The problem is to focus on the specifics of a platform or technology. These things will continue to change. In five years, will we be saying “wearables first!”?

It’s never been about the technology. It’s about where your customers are. If you design for your customer relationship, then the rest falls into place. If your customers are moving from web to smartphone, you’ll just move with them. If your customers are moving from smartphone to tablet, head there. (Though, as we’re seeing, it’s less about moving from one to another than it is about customers using a variety of devices throughout a day.) USAA was the first to offer mobile check deposit not because they’d embraced a “mobile first” mindset, but because they have a remarkably attuned sense of customer care and service, and realized they could address a real need, one that happened to use that platform in the solution.

My concern with “mobile first” is that we’ll mistake that for “mobile only” (the way that the Web was seen as the end-all be-all for quite a while) and not appreciate just what our customers are actually doing, nor prepare ourselves for what’s next.


  1. This was well timed. I’ve re-hit upon this after doing it many years back. The model of attraction frameworks I used in the mid-2000s included attraction receptors (intellectual, perceptual, mechanical, and physical) and layer the user’s context (mobile, desk, tv, etc.) to better understand design needs for a seamless in the life of the user in come to web experience.

    The mobile first is a good lever to unstick some poor UX of desk focussed web design (filling the white space) and puts it back on need, context, information design, and information hierarchy. This model of thinking about design is quite different way of approaching and thinking. The mobile first mindset is also good for being the first question and approach when mobile is a deep consideration that needs to be addressed. Mobile first is a far better question that then leads to the series of questions and considerations that need to follow (there is not one right answer unless you are dogmatic and love thinking with blinders on so you really don’t have to think): Adaptive / responsive; mobile version; mobile web app (like; or mobile app.

    But, I deeply agree there is a deep concern with it turning into a mobile first all the time leading to mobile only mindset (as if we haven’t seen this ever before with anything).

  2. Just design with larger fonts, geezum.

    Otherwise I totally agree with you (after you change 11px/18px to .75em) 🙂

  3. Design for Mobile 1st is mainly aesthetic design based on the fact you can only fit a few buttons on a phone’s screen, so you have to reduce the feature set to only the essentials and make it easy enough for your grandmother to use.

    Designing for relationships is more about service design, so you would have thought about that when deciding what functionality you want for your site, the social share buttons, and how often per week your client plans to spend managing relationships.

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