When was the last time you searched for something online - and did you use a mobile device or a desktop to do it? For most of us, our most recent online activity was likely done on a smartphone, tablet or other mobile device. The rapid rise of mobile device use means that more people are opting to search for information, make purchases and even access entertainment on the go than ever before. The widespread adoption of mobile by individuals of all ages means that organizations can no longer avoid optimizing websites and content for mobile users; failing to provide content for a mobile-first world could have disastrous results.

Why Responsive Design Matters

Desktop and laptop computers are still in use, but they have been surpassed by mobile devices. Smartphones, tablets and other devices that allow users to access information on the go continue to surge in popularity with most demographics. According to Media Consumption Forecasts released by Zenith Media, about 70 percent of Internet users now access the web via mobile device. This trend is expected to continue and could climb as much as 28 percent this year alone.

As mobile Internet use expands, experts predict that more traditional media, including newspapers, magazines and television stations will begin to adopt online brand extensions and use mobile to expand their reach. Worldwide, people use mobile devices to access the Internet for an average of 86 minutes each day; the average desktop user spends only 36 minutes online. Users not only spend more time on mobile, they use smartphones and other devices throughout the day - and want content served up immediately upon demand.

According to Digiday, Americans have had a dramatic increase in the amount of time spent on mobile devices - while the global average is 86 minutes, the average American user spends almost two-and-a-half hours surfing the web on a smartphone or mobile device, but just 40 minutes on the computer. This trend is expected to continue, as more and more Americans make the switch to mobile devices.

Why Mobile?

What is behind the increase in mobile device use? Better devices with stronger capabilities mean that there is no delay in accessing needed data, while the ability to access files in the cloud from anywhere means that school work, work projects and even entertainment become portable and can go anywhere the user goes.

From messaging apps and social media to online shopping and networking, mobile devices give consumers more choices and deliver content instantly. There’s no need to head to a desktop or workstation; instead, mobile users can instantly access the information they need to make a purchase, connect with friends or even complete work-related tasks.

As people continue to use and rely on their mobile devices to access the Internet, collaborate and do their work, the shift to a mobile first approach to web development is well underway.

What is Mobile First?
‘Mobile first’ literally means designing content and user experience with the mobile device user in mind, instead of starting with a desktop-friendly site and then hoping that it works on mobile devices.

Since more searches are being performed on mobile devices than on desktop computers, Google’s aim is to have its search index fulfill the needs of the majority of searchers. Where Google once crawled a site using the desktop version, they now primarily consider mobile browser views instead. For business owners and brands, this means that the need to convert current web pages to be mobile friendly should be a top priority; organizations that fail to do so could be left behind.

Other changes to the way Google looks at your site involves the hidden content - the information tucked away from view behind tabs, accordions and expandable boxes; this information is given more weight in the mobile first indexing process. While this new search index is not fully rolled out, it is coming; brands that take notice will be ready when the changes occur.

By implementing responsive JavaScript, it’s possible to tell Web sites to adapt to whatever device a person is using to view a Web site. Via UXmatters.

What Does Mobile First Mean for Developers?
Responsive websites may be new, but the increase in interest in mobile device use means a there is a fresher, stronger emphasis on providing mobile versions of web content. If users can’t see your site or it does not perform well on a mobile device, they’ll look elsewhere. In fact, mobile first is becoming so important that Google has created a mobile-first index, ultimately giving more weight and better ranking to those sites that provide mobile-friendly content.

Enhancing the Mobile User Experience

What makes for a good mobile experience, and how can you be sure that your site is truly mobile device friendly? Your content, organization and interactive elements all play a role in how user friendly your site is when it comes to mobile users. To be effective for mobile users, your site needs to be fully functional, easy to navigate, and the content has to optimized to be consumed on a small screen.

Fully Functional
Visitors should be able to use all tools and be able to complete the task they came to the site to do, and in most cases this is focused around making sure forms work properly. For retailers, the mobile user should be able to browse inventory, get information about items, fill a cart and eventually complete a purchase. An airline customer should be able to book a flight, check in and even get real-time status updates. Any option that a visitor can take on your desktop site must be available on your mobile site.

According to HubSpot, contact forms need to be short and easy to complete, while menus need concise, easily understood descriptions for mobile users. If you have online forms with fields for search purposes, including the most popular options in a way that makes sense to visitors can enhance the user experience. Users should not have to scroll through many pages of options or have to complete every field in a long form to perform a search or submit a form; overly complex forms simply frustrate, and discourage the mobile user.

Easy to Navigate
How easy is it for mobile visitors to find what they need and navigate your site? Navigation should be easy and intuitive for visitors and should not overburden them with multiple clicks and stages to accomplish what they are trying to do. Navigational content that is optimized for mobile devices makes it easy for users to jump from one screen to another or follow breadcrumbs to return to a previous menu. Labels should be short and fully describe what each page, drop down or form is for and allow the user to swiftly find what they need.

Navigation has a physical component as well; as phones grow in size, users tap away with only one finger or thumb at a time; your site needs to be easy to navigate with single taps. If you require users to constantly increase or decrease the screen to see what they are doing or hold and scroll, your navigation experience is likely too rough for the average mobile device user.

Content
They’ve arrived and can navigate and work every button on your site - now what? Your content needs to be present and easily viewed on a mobile device. From text and images to videos and other multimedia content, you need to have a rich library of information that can be accessed and controlled by mobile users. In some cases, you’ll need to scale down images to make sure they show up properly on mobile devices; an overly large image or video can impact the look and feel of your entire site and cause a visitor to quickly exit and try another website.

How long does it take your content to load - and how many taps do users have to perform before they are granted access or find what they need? The easier it is for mobile users to get around your site and find what they came for, the more likely they are to stick around. Four seconds or less is the ideal loading time; after that, a user could simply bounce away. The content you share and how quickly a user can access it both impact the quality of the experience.

ROI and the Mobile Experience

When your site is optimized for mobile users, they can not only easily find you but also perform any tasks they need to on your site. If you are not mobile-ready, those same prospects could become frustrated or discouraged - not only with your site but with your brand as well. As users continue to adopt mobile devices as their primary way of interacting with brands, gathering information and even making purchases, failing to provide a site that meets those needs could have disastrous consequences for your organization.

Learning more about the mobile first experience and why the mobile user experience is a critical issue for businesses of all sizes can help you get ahead of your competition and even level the playing field. Large or small, a business that addresses the needs of mobile users will be able to better serve their target prospects and ensure that customers who arrive at the site can complete their goals.

Additional resources and references:
http://gs.statcounter.com/platform-market-share/desktop-mobile-tablet
https://www.thinkwithgoogle.com/marketing-resources/experience-design/principles-mobile-site-design-delight-users-drive-conversions/
https://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/9-mobile-web-design-principles
https://understandingecommerce.com/2017/02/7-best-practices-mobile-websites-2017/
https://www.wix.com/blog/2017/02/mobile-website-best-practices/
https://blogs.adobe.com/creativecloud/mobile-design-best-practices/
http://online.lesley.edu/news/user-experience/mobile-ux-design/
http://www.uxmatters.com/mt/archives/2017/02/8-best-practices-for-mobile-form-design.php
https://uxplanet.org/mobile-design-best-practices-2d16d37ecfe
https://developers.google.com/webmasters/mobile-sites/