Using the web, mobile first

With mobile first being put forward as a means to create device agnostic web products, I have discovered that I am frequently taking a mobile first approach to something else – consuming web content. In this post I’ll share when and why the mobile phone is increasingly becoming my go-to device when I want to do something online.

In her A List Apart article The Best Browser is the One You Have with You, Stephanie Rieger discusses how access to the web from mobile devices is on the rise, and looks at ways web products can be transitioned to this eventuality. In the article she states:

The ITU predicts that in the next 18–24 months, mobile devices will overtake PCs as the most popular way to access the web.

This prediction encouraged me to stop and think (and now write) about how I consume content on the web. How, more and more, I am already reaching for my phone first, and why that is.

My desire is for convenience over power. I need just enough functionality to complete my task. Here are three examples of how I consume content on the web, mobile first, over a typical day.

The commute

Each morning I spend an hour and ten minutes on the train commuting to work, and I start by doing two things on my phone:

  1. Checking my personal email, deleting the crap and filing what I can.
  2. Browsing Twitter and favouriting anything of interest.

The signal on my route is a bit patchy – as a result I rarely pursue anything in detail. This time is simply a chance to perform some quick de-cluttering and curate a list of things to follow up on later.

Next I break out the laptop and spend the remaining hour or so working. While I do most things offline at this time, it would be easy enough to check personal email and Twitter on the laptop too, by tethering it to the phone… but I don’t.

Instead it is easier to just grab the phone and launch the mail and Twitter apps. This has become my morning routine, my ritual.

In the office

When in the office my device of choice is still the laptop, as it is on the train in the morning. For personal activities though, I am developing a habit of reaching for the phone first. Mail, Twitter and Facebook all push updates to the phone, which acts as a single point of reference for incoming messages. When checked, the phone is already in hand, allowing me to respond at the tap of an icon.

The alternative is to open a browser, navigate to a service, sign-in, check messages, respond. Repeat for each service. I got bored writing that process flow, imagine having to act it all out! Well… until a few weeks ago I was.

At home

This final example has become thoroughly embedded into the fabric of my life, and is probably a scenario familiar to many of you. If I want to look something up (triggered by a conversation or TV or a magazine), I reach for the phone and search the internet. If I want to catch up on what my friends are doing, I reach for the phone and check Facebook and Twitter. If I’ve taken a photo that I want to share, I reach for the phone and upload it to Instagram.

The laptop is frequently only a few feet further away, but it is just not as convenient.

I still rely on the laptop for designing and coding. I will choose to use the laptop when writing. And I often prefer the laptop for reading all those tweets I favourited in the morning – this is perhaps a unique idiosyncrasy: as a web designer I am as curious to see the design of your blog as much as I am to read your thoughts.

A single perspective. A portrait of the future?

This is very much a single perspective, informed by the context of my daily routine and no doubt biased by working in the web industry. Still, all the signs do point to a shift in the type of device used to consume online content.

Convenience is often the overriding factor when I choose to use the phone. The device itself is readily to hand. The app or site provides just enough functionality to complete a task. Just as quickly, I move on.

With no room for extraneous clutter on the smaller screen, the user experience at a mobile-level has become more focussed on assisting us to complete specific tasks efficiently. It has just enough functionality. That this focus can then inform what content is included across devices is a key facet of the mobile first approach to building web products. A reversal of the current everything plus the kitchen sink state presents us with exciting design challenges today, to ensure our web products continue to be useful (and used) tomorrow.