In a recent meeting with a client, he was describing the several year process he had to go through to convince the rest of his executive that a shift from traditional advertising to digital advertising was essential for the growth of the company.  As we reviewed the website analytics of their sites, we identified a couple of significant trends.  The first, and most obvious, was that digital traffic is still in a growth phase.  Across the board, across 6 websites, traffic growth was up.  Increases in organic traffic, referral traffic, PPC traffic and social traffic.

Our analysis of their web traffic started at the desire to answer three questions.

  1. Where did they come from? (source)
  2. What are the doing on our site? (content)
  3. What are they on? (device)

Digging into the third question was the most insightful.  The stats related to the first two questions were mostly similar to previous.  But the device usage among their customers is showing very strong trends towards mobile usage increases, in fact, on several sites, mobile has become the device of choice.

Testing Mobile User Growth in the Real World

But one customer does not reflect a whole market, so we did a similar analysis on nearly all of our customer websites, looking to confirm the trend to mobile is reaching the tipping point of mobile being the dominant website access device.  We wanted to confirm this using actual users, a real-world set of data based on customers here.  Based on what we observed happening with our own customer base, we re-phrased the “Digital Shift” to the “Mobile Shift“.

Tablets are not Mobile

We do not believe in classifying Tablets such as iPads as mobile.  While many studies will include just about anything non-PC as mobile (that is, not a desktop or a laptop), we disagree.  We only count mobile phones as truly mobile devices as we believe the majority of tablets are used only in what we call “local mobile mode”, that is, moving around the house or office.  This differentiates Mobile as truly transportable and focuses the attention on mobile user stats where we believe they belong.

Mobile Shift Leads to Digital First Thinking

With mobile now, or nearly, the primary device used to access websites, this leads to a much different mindset from traditional website design and information architecture. While mobile bandwidth with nearly ubiquitous 4G / LTE cellular access now eliminates the mobile choke point, the primary consideration now shifts to display usability.  A laptop, desktop, or tablet has a comparatively large viewing surface.  As big as the new smartphones are, they still do not.  Which means to truly cater to the customer, on the device they are choosing to use, means viewing your website through a Mobile First approach.

Mobile First is not the Same as Responsive Design

Responsive design is the current design methodology used on most modern websites.  Build a website with upscale design, high impact graphics, amazing image / slider transitions, cool menu builds, and then let responsive design adapt it to mobile devices.  This is OK, really, it’s OK, but it’s backward.  It still results in a useful user experience, one which permits the user to navigate on their phone with relative ease, without constantly zooming and sideways scrolling to access navigation and key features or content.

It also helps you pass an increasingly important test, the Google Mobile Friendly test, which will help you maintain good positioning in mobile search results.

Mobile First is About the User Experience

So, now shift your design criteria, and your approach to information architecture to the user, the mobile user.  A mobile user sees less content in one screen and needs to scroll more to see some of the content a laptop/desktop user will see “above the fold”.  It is important that you do not make your mobile website visitors work harder than necessary to get the job done.  Make sure that your Call to Action buttons and links are all readily available.  One first consideration is to put your phone number, address and email (or at least an easy link to them) at the top of your page header, every page.  Consider the user driving down the road (let’s call them passengers), phone in hand, who needs to find your location or phone number.  Position this at the top of the page for easy access and you will notice an increase in phone inquiries.  Make sure your phone number is a tel: formatted link.

Continuing to think about making the life of a mobile user more convenient, put the other action buttons where they will be found at key times during the user experience.  Put your Buy Now buttons, Contact buttons, Get Help buttons near the most important content on the screen, such as near product images or prices.  Think through the visitors sequence.  Locate the product wanted, select options, view the price, decide to buy, click the button.  If your user has to scroll their screen sideways/up/down, you will guarantee you lose sales.  Do not assume your visitors know which way to look, based on where on the desktop display the action buttons can be found.

Measuring Mobile First Success

Mobile first is about getting the user to their desired place on your website, efficiently and easily.  Most user engagement reviews will suggest that measurements such as time on site and page views are important in measuring engagement success.  However, think differently about how you approach mobile user success.  Consider the objective is to get the user the page (content, function, etc.) they want, and allowing them to perform the action desired with the appropriate effort.  Shift your success criteria not to quantity but quality.  How often do mobile users access your high value pages?  If you have a product oriented website, how often do your deepest pages get viewed?  If you have an e-commerce site, are your customers making purchases from mobile?  A customer who visits your site on a mobile device, drills down to a product page, and makes a purchase, is a more valuable visitor than one who views 10 pages and spends 7 minutes on your site.

Viewing and Reviewing Mobile First Design

Until Mobile First is ingrained as your approach, force yourself to toss aside the mindset of the desktop view.  When designing, avoid using a full screen desktop display to confirm your design changes have taken effect.  Instead, shrink your browser width to 320 pixels wide, or 480 pixels for landscape view.  I like to have two browser windows open, one at the portrait width and one at the landscape width, and refresh each with every change to cover both mobile views as I go.  At the same time, have your smart phone handy and frequently refresh your view.