Mobile first - 5 key constraints on mobile devices

No, this isn’t as simple as adding a responsive layout (simple being the operative word there). Responsive is great since it will work across a number of devices (tip: resize your browser while you’re reading this to see responsive in action). A separate mobile site is also good way of delivering mobile views of existing content, plus giving the option of customising (so taking advantage of better geo-location for example). Or you might want to take a mix of the two (use responsive for some, and a separate to deliver a super fast version)

There are five key technical constraints:

1. size of screen

Obviously the screens are different, and smaller screens means less pixels to work with. A typical desktop is a few thousand pixels wide, but a typical mobile device is in the hundreds. Desktops tend to be landscape, while mobile is often portrait.

this means: consider whether delivering the same content and functionality makes sense - perhaps the smaller screen provides other opportunities

2. slow network

Compared to typical desktop speeds, mobile networks are relatively slow. So the bigger the page and graphics your site sends to a mobile user, the longer it takes.

this means: small payload is really important

3. small cache

Compared to a desktop computer, mobile devices typically have very small memory caches - which means they can’t remember much. Send it too much data and this fills up. This in turn slows things down as the information needs to get reloaded.

this means: again, small payload is really important

4. low performance

The processing power of a mobile device is relatively low - so a page that might load in 5 sec on a desktop might take 10 sec on mobile. This can have an interesting side effect - using tools like New Relic (New Relic) weve seen page render times mysteriously keep on climbing even when we’ve made no changes. The reason turned out to be a gradual increase in mobile traffic, which pushes the average up.

this means: not to harp on, but a small payload is really important

5. existing code

If you’re just starting a site you can probably do anything you want vs dealing with existing code, there are probably some things which are easier than others.

this means: it is worth fleshing out a few different approaches to see which makes sense

Building things mobile first

How we’ve approached this problem is to focus on trying to build things mobile first. Instead of designing for a desktop screen and then hacking on the mobile version, start with the mobile version and then flesh it out from there. But it is much more than just the visual design process- mobile first has meant thinking differently about how we re-use code and being clever about asset management.

It takes a while to bed this process down, but we’re starting to see more significant changes in how we’re approaching projects - from how things look to how they are architected.