Mobile-First Design for Beginners

October 20, 2022


The way we use the web has changed drastically since the invention of smartphones. The days of simple web pages are long gone. Today, over 90% of people worldwide access the internet via a mobile device.

What does that mean for your business? Primarily, it means that when it comes to UX design, the mobile use case must be top-of-mind. If you aren’t prioritizing mobile UX design when building your products, websites, and landing pages, you risk losing a massive chunk of online traffic.

For small businesses and those new to building the web, designing for mobile can seem like a daunting task. However, the mobile design doesn’t have to be a headache. Most web design frameworks nowadays support mobile and mobile-first UX design. Most web developers and programmers are aware of the pitfalls surrounding mobile-first development.

Let’s look at why mobile-first design is important and talk about some simple ways that you can approach mobile-first design when building your products.


What Is Mobile-First Design?

Mobile-first design is a design philosophy that prioritizes optimizing content for mobile devices. This approach is different from desktop-first design, in which desktop content is reorganized to fit a mobile screen.

Mobile-first design entails not only positioning content in a different layout. You must consider the unique challenges of designing for mobile devices. For example, mobile device performance is very different from desktop performance. Developers can do things like optimizing images to load more quickly on mobile devices by using a smaller file size.

Mobile-first design also means accounting for how people use mobile devices compared to desktop computers. Mobile devices are more frequently used for online shopping, browsing, streaming, and absorbing content at-a-glance, while desktop computers are more likely to be used for work.

Mobile design also opens up a new world of options for capturing and utilizing user content and device hardware. Mobile devices have different interfaces available for taking pictures and videos, and it’s easy to access user content like files and photos and make them available for sharing.


Why Is Mobile-First Design Important?

As previously stated, mobile internet use far surpasses desktop use in most of the world. Since 2015, mobile internet traffic has been on the rise and now accounts for over 55% of all internet traffic.

Beyond simply the ubiquity of mobile internet, use is the frequency with which people check their mobile devices and the time people spend online via their phones. Worldwide, people spend about 5 hours a day browsing the internet on their mobile devices.

It is not only end-users who benefit from good mobile design: enterprise businesses must also keep mobile UX in mind when considering the ROI of their UX designs. Too often, inertia means that enterprise businesses miss out on revenue because their legacy codebases are too difficult to update to modern design practices.

It’s easy to see why a mobile-first approach to web design is crucial when building modern web interfaces.


How Should Mobile-First Design Be Approached?

To successfully implement a mobile-first approach, you must understand what users expect from a mobile web experience. Collecting and analyzing data and user feedback is a critical step in a mobile-first design approach.

Accessibility is another consideration to keep in mind when taking a mobile-first approach to design. Mobile devices present a unique set of challenges when it comes to making content easily accessible for people with disabilities and elderly people.

Mobile-first design should be an iterative process, always starting with the Minimum Viable Product that will allow users to do what they need to do and build on that product to improve it and add more features.

Finally, all stakeholders must be involved and on board with the mobile-first approach. Designers and engineers must all be on the same page about product requirements and the constraints of designing for mobile.


Best Practices for Mobile-First Design

Below are some of the best practices for successful mobile-first design. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it is a good starting point for someone just learning to get comfortable designing for mobile.

1. Optimize Content for Available Space

The main difference between desktop devices and mobile devices is screen real estate. Obviously, mobile screens are much smaller than desktop screens and are laid out in portrait orientation rather than landscape.

This difference in screen size doesn’t just mean that you must lay out your content differently on the page. It also means that you need to consider which content is most important, most engaging, and most likely to keep your users on the page. Prioritize that content and put it “above the fold.”

You should also think about the ways you can group content to maximize space. Hamburger menus, for example, are a great way to efficiently group things like navigation links. Photo carousels can replace galleries, and pop-out video players can replace embedded video players.


2. Design Your Navigation

You may not have given much thought to the way you design your site’s navigation. On a desktop, you can handle navigation with a few links in the header and footer of the homepage. Desktop computers allow users to easily navigate back and forth between tabs, making navigation less of a concern.

On mobile, however, navigation must be optimized to deliver a clean user experience. In mobile apps, stacked modals are a major navigation component. It is important to consider the order in which a user moves through these stacked modals.

Mobile devices do not allow users to switch back and forth between tabs and windows as quickly and easily as desktop devices do, so it is necessary to consider this when sending your user to a new page or tab.

Some things that can make navigation more intuitive on mobile are

  • hamburger menus
  • modals
  • gesture-based navigation like swiping
  • zooming and full-screen navigation
  • sticky headers and footers


3. Optimize Performance

Mobile devices have different performance constraints than desktop devices. Desktop devices have higher voltage levels that provide more power and can deliver faster load speeds, render images at a higher quality, and stream content more efficiently.

Desktop devices are usually connected to faster internet connections than mobile devices. Home routers and ethernet cables provide much better download and upload times than cellular networks.

For these reasons, it is critical to optimize your page load times, image rendering times, and data streaming. Page load times are a huge factor in user bounce rates, which are higher across the board for mobile devices. Most users will leave a page if it does not load within a few seconds.

Some things you can do to optimize mobile performance include

  • Caching things to avoid making unnecessary requests
  • Scaling images
  • Avoiding the use of too many different fonts
  • Avoiding long-running, CPU-intensive tasks
  • Not blocking the critical rendering path
  • Inlining CSS for a faster initial load
  • Keeping your Javascript bundle small


4. Test Everything


Testing is a critical part of continuous development, and mobile testing should be part of your overall testing solution. You should implement both manual and automated testing of your mobile designs, as well as your desktop designs.

There are many testing frameworks available for testing mobile web designs. Every new code change should include automated tests to ensure that the designs are performing as expected. Additionally, you should include regression tests to ensure that changes do not break existing functionality.

Automated testing is no replacement for a solid QA plan and manual testing. Humans often catch things that machines cannot so make sure you are running through a defined suite of manual tests with every release.

Some great options for doing mobile testing are

  • Appium
  • Selenium
  • Espresso
  • Cypress
  • BrowserStack
  • App Live


5. Make Designs Accessible

Accessibility is a necessary consideration when designing for the web, but especially when designing for mobile. Users with specific requirements for navigating the web will often have more trouble using mobile devices than desktops.

Small font sizes, cluttered interfaces, tiny tap targets, certain color schemes, and automated audio cues are not good for accessibility when it comes to mobile UX design. Additionally, making an interface accessible will affect how developers code your designs. There are certain tricks and techniques that web developers use to code layouts that won’t work on mobile when considering accessibility requirements.

The Mozilla Developer Network has excellent guidelines for accessibility and keeps a running document for mobile-specific accessibility requirements. Keep these requirements in mind as you build your mobile-first designs.

Here is another resource to help with designing accessible apps: accessibility testing.



Mobile-first UX design is more important today than ever before. As more of the world accesses the internet via their mobile devices, the mobile-first design will become the default method of web design.

Mobile web design doesn’t have to be a pain. Approaching design from a mobile-first standpoint will allow you to build exactly what your users need on mobile, and will prevent your site from becoming cluttered and difficult to scale. Keep a few best practices in mind when building your next web page and you will find designing for mobile devices easy.


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