Over the past couple of years, the number of internet users has increased significantly to 4.5 billion. And today, users tend to switch between several devices when browsing the web. So it’s essential to design a website or app that works perfectly both on mobile devices and desktops. There are two main ways to achieve this goal: mobile-first and responsive design. What are these concepts, what’s the difference between them, and which better fits your project? We reveal all the answers in this blog post to help you make the most beneficial decision for your business.
What is the difference between mobile-first and responsive web design?
Mobile-first and responsive design are commonly confused, and these terms are often used interchangeably. But they aren’t the same thing. Let’s take an in-depth look at both to avoid mistakes.
Mobile-first web design
The idea of mobile-first web design, also known as progressive enhancement, belongs to Luke Wroblewski, a product director at Google. He coined the term mobile-first in 2009. Mobile-first design refers to developing the mobile website first and then scaling up to larger devices. Using this approach, a website or app design starts with the most important elements, providing a strong base for further development.
To see the overall picture of this approach, it’s important to investigate all advantages and disadvantages of mobile-first design.
Pros of mobile-first design
Well organized content. A smartphone screen is a small frame for website content. This may seem like an obstacle to displaying useful information, but working within this frame is a great way to avoid mistakes in the future. Mobile-first design encourages you to include only relevant content. By avoiding unnecessary details, you simplify the customer journey and help the customers reach their goal. Also, such an approach positively affects the look and functionality of the desktop version of the site, as it helps you determine the purpose of your website.
Fewer bugs. Mobile-first design requires simpler code than responsive design. And since coding for desktop screens is a more complicated task, the mobile-first approach helps simplify the process and avoid errors in the desktop version.
Better UX. The mobile-first concept provides a strong UX basis for further development. You can include only vital elements of the platform in the limited space on a mobile screen. Thus, you have a better chance of developing a simple website or app with a rich user experience.
Cons of a mobile-first approach
Different URLs. Since mobile-first design entails different versions of the website for mobile and desktop screens, the URLs for mobile and desktop can also differ. Sometimes, this confuses users and leads them to spend more time finding the website they need.
Cost. Mobile-first web design is not flexible, and you’ll need to develop a few website versions for different operating systems (notably Android and iOS). This may lead to more time and higher costs for development. The design cost will also be higher than for a traditional website.
Different content. While mobile websites have limited content, desktop versions can be broader and more diverse. Sometimes, this confuses users and creates a negative experience.
Examples of mobile-first websites
Instagram was developed in 2010 as a mobile application to add filters to photos and share them with friends. Today, Instagram is a strong business platform and marketing instrument. Thanks to its mobile-first approach, it has a perfect mobile-centric design that can be scaled to a user-friendly desktop version.
Before building a mobile application, Facebook used a mobile-first approach to redesign their website. The original mobile-first site demonstrates well the importance of content.
Amazon offers another great example of a mobile-first approach. Thanks to its well-structured layout and clear navigation, the Amazon website demonstrates how to adopt mobile-first design in an online sales platform.
Responsive web design
Responsive web design takes the opposite approach to mobile-first. Ethan Marcotte, the author of responsive web design, created this approach around the idea of flexible images and layouts. Using responsive design, the desktop website comes first. Then with CSS, the website is adapted to the parameters of the browser window set by the user or device. The goal of such a design is to develop one site or one version of the app that will adapt to all screens of all sizes. As a website is scaled down using this strategy, responsive design is commonly known as gradual degradation.
To see the overall picture of this approach, it’s important to investigate all advantages and disadvantages of responsive design.
Pros of responsive design
One website for all devices. Responsive design eliminates the need to develop separate websites or apps for tablets and smartphones. You can simply develop a desktop website and adapt it. Also, a single responsive website requires less time and money for testing and support.
No need to zoom websites on mobile devices. If mobile users are on a non-responsive site, they need to zoom every element and zoom in on buttons to click them. This lengthens the customer journey and harms the user experience. Responsive design helps you avoid these actions and makes the browsing process friendly.
One URL for all devices. With a website that adapts for any device, all data is hosted on one server and there’s only one URL. This makes it easy for users to find your site and doesn’t require them to download additional applications.
Cons of responsive design
Slow loading on mobile devices. Since responsive design development goes from large screens to small, high-resolution graphics are used. This makes the site weigh a lot and makes loading difficult for mobile devices. Thus, users need to wait before using your website.
Complex code. Although the flexibility of a responsive site gives versatility, it also has a negative effect on the code. Due to its complex structure, responsive web design requires complex CSS. Therefore, it tends to cost more and require more time to develop a website that operates smoothly on all devices.
Complicated UX design. Responsive web design aims to satisfy both desktop and mobile users. However, you should bear in mind that mobile devices and desktops have completely different user interfaces. Therefore, be careful not to lose both groups of users while trying to split the difference.
Examples of responsive websites
Responsive design in the browser
The way a website is displayed in the browser window is affected by the parameters you specify. As a user stretches or squeezes the window, the website’s appearance will change. This is due to responsive design.
Responsive design for all devices
Another way of displaying a website is according to the device’s screen size, not the size of the browser window. This keeps the layout flexible and maintains image quality regardless of the screen size.
What to choose for your project?
Now that you know the difference between mobile-first and responsive designs, let’s imagine you need to decide which approach to use when creating your site. To understand which of these web design approaches best suits your business, start by gathering information about your visitors, creating customer personas, and outlining the purpose of your website. Once you see the whole picture, you can follow the 80–20 rule. If 80 percent of your users are on desktops, responsive design is better. If 80 percent of your audience uses mobile devices, the mobile-first approach fits best.
Unfortunately, a universal solution does not exist, and each case needs to be considered separately. To help you decide, here’s a brief table for comparison.
The bottom line
Trends are changing rapidly. In this article, we’ve dug deep into mobile-first and responsive design approaches to help you to stay on top. There’s a difference between mobile-first and responsive web design, and both have their advantages and disadvantages. Do your research, learn about your audience, and define the purpose of your website. All these little steps will help you to choose between mobile-first and responsive web design. Good luck! If you still have questions on this topic, drop us a line and we’ll help you choose the best way to design your project.