What does mobile-first mean for publishers?

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Deciding which year was the year of mobile is a tricky task; commentators have claimed pretty much every year between 2007 and 2017 as the definitive date mobile technology established its dominance. The reality is that mobile tech is constantly evolving and, for publishers, that can make developing a  mobile-first strategy a challenge.

  • Luke Wroblewski, a product director at Google, is credited with coining the phrase mobile first. He wrote back in 2009 that the mobile experience for web applications was largely following desktop development. He believed at the time that this was wrong and that web applications should be designed for mobile first.
  • Wroblewski gave three reasons for his position on mobile-first development:
    • Explosive mobile growth – back in 2009, the introduction of smartphones was driving huge growth in mobile web applications.
    • Mobile demands focus – there isn’t space on a smartphone screen for ‘extraneous, unnecessary elements’. Developers have to prioritize.
    • New capabilities – from location information to multi-touch inputs, mobile-first takes full advantage of unique features.
  • In the decade since Wroblewski first drew attention to the benefits of mobile-first development, mobile technology and consumer usage have come a very long way. Design system consultant Brad Frost says this has led to the term mobile-first being used as a ‘catch-all’ to describe a huge range of ideas.
Understanding mobile first

Mobile reaches 87% of the world’s population, with significant numbers accessing digital content primarily, or exclusively, through their smartphones. Frost points out that, in the US, 31% of people use mobile devices as the main way of accessing the web. This figure is higher in other parts of the world – in Nigeria, for example, 82% of web traffic was generated via smartphones.

Frost believes that what he calls mobile-first minds are not familiar with ‘mental models’ that are based in a desktop past. He says this will shape people’s expectations of what digital content delivers.

Seeing the commercial opportunity in this expanding market, publishing organisations are now making mobile a priority instead of an afterthought. Explosive growth in mobile-first apps from TikTok to Instagram is reshaping publisher attitudes to content, pushing ‘serious’ media operations to adopt platforms that were once considered too trivial.   

When it comes to owned-app development, Frost says organisations need to be clear on the distinction between native apps and web apps. He explains that both can be seen as mobile first and that the difference is not in where they are accessed but in what they do. He said:

A misunderstanding of ‘mobile first’ can lead to a myopic strategy that can cause organizations to miss the big picture and miss out on future opportunities.

Design and development
The constraints of mobile screens force designers to focus on the most important elements of a product or service. Frost says the ‘extraneous bloat’ of large screen design doesn’t work. For him, mobile-first design and development provides an opportunity to reevaluate what content/functionality is necessary.

With the size of the mobile advertising market predicted to grow by $111.58 billion between 2020 and 2025, focusing on effective mobile-first presentations is a clear opportunity for publishers. Growth in in-app advertising is also an important growth consideration – mobile consumers spend 80% of their time on dedicated apps.

In this context mobile video is also a major consideration for publishers looking to capture the attention of mobile-first audiences. The number of  people watching video on their mobile devices has grown from 1.43 billion in 2016 to a projected 2.3 billion in 2021. The video advertising market is projected to have a compound annual growth rate of 20.89% to grow to $155.18 billion by 2026, driven largely by increased mobile consumption.

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