Think Big, Reduce Later – why Mobile First does not always have to be first choice

The motto "Mobile First" has now become established in the development of digital interfaces for several end devices. But it is worthwhile to question this approach and to position visual alternatives.

First described on November 3, 2009 by Luke Wroblewski, Mobile First means more than just starting with the smallest display and thus the lowest common denominator for responsive pages. Today this corresponds to the display of a Smart Watch. So "Small Screen First" is more likely to hit the mark. Mobile First is primarily concerned with reducing functions and information to their essence and relevance and developing the overall picture from this.

From the developer's point of view, this approach makes sense. Starting from a common program code for all resolutions, the special features of extended views can be added step by step. This approach can also be useful in the design phase, as it allows prioritization at the beginning and clearly shows why different page elements form the core of a view, while others are only added when appropriate options are available.

But even conceptually, opinions differ. More and more often, there is talk of Device First. Here, the special features of a device in its use are in the foreground. What do I use to operate the device? Where and in what context do I use a digital service? In this context, it would not be very helpful to first design a tool for recording working time on the desktop on a mobile device.

„Flow and context are more important than screen size.“

Laura Klein

For Publicitas, we designed a simple editor that allows the user to create a WYSIWYG ad

But as a designer I am concerned about another aspect. The composition of different design elements at a glance, their interaction and how space and weighting result in the user guidance and the focus of a view, depend to a large extent on how large the available space is. The visible area plays an essential role in order to reach functions easily and quickly or to present information in a comprehensible and appealing way.

On small displays, reduction to the essentials may be a necessary evil, and the composition of information does not play a role in successive elements, as is usually the case on smartphones. The elements are not interdependent. Or to put it another way: Visually, a complex website with a wide variety of elements on a small display inevitably turns into an enumeration with a burger menu.

Simple thought, but often simply unimaginative: Display of information blocks on views with more space according to the simple list principle

Whoever starts with a list as a basis for design runs the risk of transferring this dreariness to views with more space. From three listed information blocks, three uninspired teasers without prioritization are easily created in a larger space. The user's gaze - or the relevance of information - becomes an ignored side issue.

Gepflegte Langeweile: UI-Pattern mit standardisierten Musterelementen als Grundlage für ein Interface

Another aspect that makes many interfaces appear like variations of the same thing is UI patterns - i.e. the uniform and exemplary mapping of functions and information. These design templates naturally have advantages: The user does not have to learn how an interface works because he can interact with familiar elements. But an overly straightforward use of such building blocks is no guarantee for good design. Tailor-made views and solutions that are more exciting and targeted in their appearance often fall short.

Because of my preference for variety and bold compositions, I still prefer a different approach to design: Starting with the large picture - the joint presentation of all relevant information and functions - the more compact images must follow in a smaller space. After all, unnecessary information has no place anywhere in the design anyway, and arrangements are first and foremost dependent on the output device and the environment in which it is used. You win if we concentrate on that. Omitting is always visually easier than adding. The worry that a view will not work as well when reduced is therefore unfounded.

If we focus more on complex view types and think about all relevant output devices right from the start, this leads to more experimentation and variety. We ensure diversity in appearance and concentrate more specifically on the expectations that users have of the operation of interfaces. The Think Big, Reduce Later approach puts diversity and attractiveness back at the center and thus creates more intensive user-experience experiences. We have approached our own website in the same way. The result: Each view has its own character and is not a bit boring.

Image Credits: Ski Safari 2

Ralf Kienzler

UX / UI Designer

rk@coeno.com

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