“A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”— Antoine de Saint Exupéry
One of the common refrains from software companies regarding application design is “mobile first.” This is in response to perceived changes in the applications market that is driven by the popularity of smartphones and tablets as computing platforms. There is no doubt that mobile platforms are starting to have an effect on the business application environment. It is not mobility per se that is driving these changes though. Yes, the fact that a computing platform can move around is providing opportunities for applications to use location to enhance user experience. More profound changes are coming from the limitations of the platforms. With small screens relative to desktop and laptop screens and less memory and compute resources, application designers have had to rethink the user experience. Part of this redesign has been to pare down applications to the most necessary features or create several applications for the same system that target different types of knowledge workers. The latter especially is a good way to approach application design, effectively eliminating the monolithic, one-size-fits-all, interfaces that confuse knowledge workers who need to use common business applications.
The mobile first design principle says that we should design for a mobile platform first and then adapt upwards. This is different than the more common design principle that starts with a desktop or web-based application and then pares it down for the mobile experience. Mobile first starts with a more minimal design and adds to it rather than starting with the maximum design and eliminated unneeded features. It starts with the premise that not all features are necessary all the time. In many ways, this is progress. The realization that not all features need to be exposed to all knowledge workers all the time is an important revelation. One size fits all applications tend to confuse rather than motivate knowledge workers to use and application. Consumer mobile applications have shown us that an intuitive and relevant user experience is much more valuable than completeness. Of course, systems still need to be complete. They must cover a variety of use cases but individual applications can be targeted to specific use cases and job functions.
Therein lays the problem with mobile first. Starting with a limited, mobile platform can straightjacket development. There isn’t even a single mobile experience. Tablets differ from smartphones (and from one another) as much as they differ from a desktop computer with a 22 inch monitor, mouse, and keyboard. Recognizing that different platforms require specialized designs shouldn’t give primacy to any one platform over the others. Mobile first perpetuates the problem of having the wrong design for a variety of platforms.
Complicating matters is the tendency to overweight the effects of a new trend. While there’s no doubt that mobile devices are growing as a platform for business applications, ESG research shows that the desktop and laptop are still the dominant platforms for business applciations. At present, most knowledge workers access business applications from either a native desktop application or a browser on a desktop OS most of the time. Designing for mobile devices first is to design for a minority of knowledge workers in most cases.
The real goal shouldn’t be to design for mobile platforms so much as for different types of knowledge workers. Some are desktop bound while others are on the go. The platform, user, and use case must all be considered together in application design. Platform design is, in of itself, a red herring or at best a proxy for certain types of knowledge workers. The best situation would be to have the user experience designed independently according to job function which would include likely platforms, both primary and secondary, but also common workflows. While that drives up development costs, a better, individualized user experience increases productivity, reduces training costs, and keeps support costs in check. In the short term, there is more cost but in the long term those costs can be recouped many times over.
So, think user first not mobile first.