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User First… Not Mobile First

Right now “Responsive Design” seems to be the big buzz word in the design industry. Designers, much like us developers, are lazy. We want code reusability, the option to do things ONE TIME, and not have to make the same update several times for each little change.

Enter “Responsive Design,” or a one-size-fits-all solution for developing web pages and applications. The problem however, is that while for some sites this approach may work, it doesn’t for all sites. The more content you add, the more features you add, the more complex your site becomes… and let’s face it, there are some things you can do on a desktop browser that you really shouldn’t on a mobile (ie phone) display.

To solve this dilemma, a great idea was born. Let’s develop for mobile displays first… after all, for years we have taken a desktop first approach. The problem is that this doesn’t fix the problem, but only shifts it. While it makes sense to find the most relevant data and place it first, we have to keep in mind the formatting of the users device, and the purpose of the user for visiting our site on that device.

For example, if you are visiting CNN, you want news. You probably don’t care as much about their daily poll, and I’m guessing you don’t want to have to scroll through all 2,000 sections to find the stories you want. Instead, CNN wisely provides you with the most relevant news to you – with the option to browse to the more refined areas should you choose. Likewise, checking weather.com on your mobile device probably means you want to know your local weather, and could probably care less about what’s playing on the Weather Channel right now. Maybe you want to watch an episode of Storm Chasers, or take a look at videos from Hawaii, but for most people, they just want to know whether or not it’s going to keep snowing in April in Minnesota.

So keeping this in mind, we need to find a versatile solution. Sure we can create one site with responsive design to accommodate all these different devices, but we are still limited in our ability to provide a smooth, user friendly experience without hogging up all of the user’s wireless data. Too much and the site takes forever to load, causing users to simply flee… not enough on the desktop and users may not find it stimulating or useful enough.

Then again, we could create specific sites for every single device, one for the iPhone, one for the iPad, and 10,000 for the different sized and capable Android devices.

So why not join these two concepts? As mobile devices become more prevalent, we won’t be limited to cell phones, tablets, netbooks, and computers. Instead, people will be checking recipes on their refrigerator, local searches in their car, pulling up your site by clicking on your ad on TV, or even visiting your site using a pair of Google glasses.

The simple fact is, we can’t possibly make a one-size-fits-all solution that covers all of these dynamics. Well, maybe we can, but not for heavy content sites or web applications.

But we can streamline the process by utilizing responsive design within our specialized applications. We can develop a phone system that works on the majority of mobile devices, without sacrificing content and without maxing out wireless data.

Overall, the solution(s) depend on what’s best for your users, not what’s most convenient for you or your designers. It becomes an economic question, and while we are quick to jump to the savings, we also have to evaluate and take into consideration the possibility for revenues. Does a mobile friendly site make sense, well, will the benefits of usability increase revenues and customers enough to balance out or outweigh the costs of maintaining it. If so, even if it’s a draw, the user experience is worth it.

Keep in mind that we are in a fascinating time technologically speaking. We have new challenges as more and more users bog down data networks. At the same time, new technologies such as flexible glass are being perfected, and with the increased demand a whole new world of mobile and home technological possibilities.

If we get too stuck in the mobile first mindset, we may find ourselves having just the opposite dilemma. When someone wakes up and their wall lights up, they may find themselves stuck with a 320x480px website blown to fuzzy, unreadable proportions. We have to not only design for today, but with the future in mind. A future that isn’t restricted to mobile only, and in which mobile devices as we know it may become completely obliterated.

And economically, perhaps more important than designing for the future, we need to design for the user. Providing the most convenient solution for them in the present day.

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