The Web is Now Mobile

Every industry has its buzz words, and the web is not immune. Lately, it seems that a developer can't go three clicks without running across the words "responsive design" and "mobile first". Responsive design, put simply, is an approach that uses a combination of fluid grids and CSS3 media queries to serve the same webpage to multiple screen widths, such as sites that work on mobile, desktop and anywhere in between. The practice is gaining strong traction and even among larger organizations, with the latest being the Boston Globe (click here for a gallery of examples). Mobile first, on the other hand, is the bold idea that web designers should consider the mobile experience first in projects, as opposed to just an afterthought.

For the record, I think both of these ideas are well worth the buzz (and if you're interested in reading more about them see the notes section below), but what I want to focus on in this article is the why - why are these two ideas catching on so quickly? Why would you design in a way that is optimized for any screen size? Why would you consider designing with mobile in mind first? Because there is no argument stronger than data, here are some statistics:

  • Analysts predicted smartphones would out-ship the combined global market of desktop, laptop and notebook computers in 2012; this actually occurred in the last quarter of 20101.
  • In 2010, home usage of personal computers was down 20% from 20082, and traffic to mobile websites grew 600% in 2010 (after tripling in 2009 alone)3.
  • In November 2010, web-based email site usage declined 6%, and mobile email access grew 36%4.
  • Analysts now expect that the prediction that mobile web access will surpass desktop web access by 2013, will now come much sooner (as in this year or next)5. Put differently, this means more people will be accessing websites on mobile devices than desktop computers any day now.

There's no denying that we are at a tipping point. Need further proof? Listen to these experts...

Google Chairman Eric Schmidt was quoted as saying, "The simple guideline is whatever you are doing, do mobile first."6

Facebook's Director of Design, Karen Aronowitz, chimes in, "We're just now starting to get into mobile first and then web second for a lot of our products."7 

Adobe's CTO, Kevin Lynch, says, "We really need to shift to think about mobile first... This is a bigger shift than we saw with the personal computing revolution."8

And if you're wondering how this translates into sales...

  • PayPal is showing up to $10 million volume per day in mobile payments.9
  • In the 3rd quarter of 2010, eBay's global mobile sales were nearly $2 billion.10

Finally, the rate at which this shift is occurring may be the most startling statistic. Below is a slide from a Morgan Stanley presentation showing the adoption rate of mobile versus desktop internet usage in the early days of web.

So yes, the conversations regarding responsive design and mobile first are most definitely buzz-worthy. Put simply, a website without a strategy for mobile is most likely ignoring nearly half its users today, and that number will only increase tomorrow. In an industry that is used to changing at a breakneck pace, it's sometimes difficult to prioritize the different changes taking place. However, I challenge you (and myself) to realize that this particular change - the growth of mobile web - IS the elephant in the room when it comes to web design; there is massive potential ahead for those who choose to embrace it. Are you ready?

Notes: Much of what I spoke about in this article was gleaned from 2 excellent sources: Mobile FIrst by Luke Wroblewski and Responsive Web Design by Ethan Marcotte. In terms of data, much of that comes from only a couple of pages in the first chapter of Luke's Mobile First book. If you are anything from an agency exec to a designer/developer, I encourage you to read this book. It is approachable, concise and a fantastic read. If you are a developer/designer seeking to learn how to design responsively, Ethan's book, Responsive Web Design is the seminal source out there right now. Lastly, I don't want to write statistics without pointing you to their original sources, so I have listed those below - again, these are being passed on from Luke's book, Mobile First:

  1. Smartphones pass PC Sales for the FIrst Time in History
  2. Is the Smartphone Killing the PC?
  3. Smartphone market drives 600% Growth in Mobile Web Usage
  4. Email Evolution

Camera Photograph by Leigh Guarin.