My Big, Painful, Personal Problem With "Mobile First"

Sometimes I despise conventional wisdom. A case in point: Every cloud and IT startup now rallies around the "mobile first" mantra -- meaning that you've got to focus your development efforts (first and foremost) on smartphones and the mobile experience (rather than notebooks, desktops, etc.). And that may involve app-first instead of web-first priorities. There are two big problems with the "mobile first" mantra.

  1. Mobile is a shiny object. Instead of blindly chasing it as your first priority, you should focus on defining and fulfilling your customers' most pressing use cases. 
  2. Mobile is pain in the a** -- but we must all work through It.

Now, a few examples...

1. Mobile Is Still A Shiny Object

Did you know the mobile market, mobile data consumption and mobile [insert anything here] will grow to a GigaZillion dollars from now until 2020? Even more exciting, the Internet of Things (IoT) will further accelerate the mobile market from a GigaZillion dollars to a PentaZillion dollars by 2025. That's ginormous growth you can't overlook.

Ahem, we've all seen the market forecasts. STOP chasing them -- especially as the mobile adoption curve begins to level off in established markets (U.S.A., U.S.A....).

Instead, focus on your existing and future customer use cases:

  • How do you want customers to consume your platforms and services? Actually, flip the question: How do your customers want to engage with you or your services?
  • Will the engagements be designed for quick-hit encounters (get in, get updated, get out) or deeper, comprehensive encounters (research, extended data analysis, etc.)?
  • With those platform use cases in mind, how are your target customers most likely to engage you? From the comfort of their office PC? During a long train commute each morning? While checking chatter from their smart phones?

What you're basically trying to do is established a balancing act -- delivering the right mix of platform capability and engagement across mobile, desktop and other emerging platforms -- without simply following the "mobile first" crowd because it's the "thing to do."

2. Mobile is a pain in the a** (but we'll work through it)

So, a little history lesson.

Amy Katz and I started our previous company in stealth mode in 2007 -- when Apple first released the iPhone. Few people realized a true app store revolution would follow in mid-2008.

Back then, we focused our business building efforts on traditional user interfaces -- PCs running web browsers. As smartphones took hold, our platforms were "good enough" for smaller screen users. As for the native iOS and Android app discussion -- we kicked that can down the road.

Fast forward to 2015. We're five months into our new business. The "mobile first" mantra has only gotten louder. Fortunately, "responsive design" technologies now allow folks like us to develop engaging web platforms that stretch from mobile to desktops to big screens.

Ahem, not really. Pointing to "responsive design" as a cross-platform cure-all is a bit like pointing to Hadoop as your magic bullet solution for Big Data information gathering, management, protection and monetization. You can't throw "tools" at these challenges. Instead, you really have to get back to that customer use-case discussion -- as mentioned in point 1 above.

Our (Potential) Approach

Hypothetically speaking, let's say After Nines Inc. was developing a platform that needed to stretch across mobile, desktop and big-screen systems. Among the challenges for a bootstrapped startup like us:

  • Obviously, supporting all those platforms with one code base.
  • Stepping from Web into the iOS and Android waters -- without suddenly ringing up massive costs and code base optimization/maintenance issues.
  • Look out: There are hidden recurring monthly and/or annual costs for many of the platform code extensions...
  • Monetizing the platform in a consistent way -- regardless of how customers choose to consume the platform (big screen, desktop, mobile, iOS, Android).
  • Delivering that great user experience -- again, regardless of how customers choose to consume the platform.

So how would we potentially address those challenges? Hypothetically speaking... 

  • First, we should develop a blueprint for the platform; must-have services it will offer at launch; and the future services we'd potentially like to add.
  • Then, I concede, we would start with mobile first: How do we expose those services (without making them feel "squeezed") on a mobile system?
  • Then, we'd essentially "stretch" the mobile vision to the big screen without making our customers feel like the stretch somehow diminished the platform. In the most simple terms -- it's like stretching a very high quality photo or video from mobile and placing it onto a big screen -- without losing the beautiful resolution, color depth, etc.

One caveat: Many of our potential customer use cases truly are mobile intensive. Your customer use cases may be different, so your platform starting point may also differ.

Defining Success

If we hit the hypothetical mark, all the complexity would be hidden from the user -- regardless of their device choice. Their reaction would be "this is simple and elegant." Over time, the platform technology would essentially disappear -- and customers would simply feel like they're getting their jobs done without navigating complex interfaces to achieve success.

Amid all those hypotheticals, here's one thing that remains unchanged: Mobile remains a pain in the a**.

But we (you, me... everyone) have no choice but to address it head-on.

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