Mobile First or Mobile Compatible: Which Is Right for Your Site?

Stephen Yagielowicz

Here at XBIZ, we love to look at the latest design trends and to help our readers stay on the cutting edge; which today involves responsive web designs where essentially one template is modified at run time to suit various devices and their different capabilities — including feature support, screen sizes and other unique parameters.

From a cohesive appearance to ease of maintenance, there are many advantages to the use of responsive design techniques. Underpinning this process, however, are two distinct design philosophies: mobile first and mobile compatible, which we’ll examine in detail:

More than ever before the web is something that we carry in our pockets, not something that merely hangs out near our desk or even in our homes, many users will likely only ever see the mobile version of your site. -Joshua Johnson wrote for

First, having a mobile first design and offering mobile compatibility is not the same.

Embracing a mobile first design concept means that you are starting with the lowest common denominator, and then progressively adding content and features commensurate with the growing capabilities and screen sizes of non-mobile devices. Seen in this light, we can call the mobile first design philosophy “progressive enhancement.”

The opposite is generally true of sites approaching the problem by focusing on adding some level of mobile compatibility — shaving content and features from the “full” site to deliver basic functionality to mobile users. It is a process known as graceful degradation, but it’s only graceful when it’s done right.

The question of which approach is best for your particular website is no mere echoing of the classic “is the glass half full or half empty?” debate.

Mobile compatible tends to mean that the full version of the site is fed to all devices, including mobile devices that may be on slower connections and have less power to give a good user experience — using media queries and other techniques to “dumb down” the full site’s features.

As mobile web access continues to increase, it is an evermore backward approach.

“More than ever before the web is something that we carry in our pockets, not something that merely hangs out near our desk or even in our homes,” Joshua Johnson wrote for, noting that this trend means that “many users will likely only ever see the mobile version of your site.”

Johnson says that historically, most web designers and their clients have approached the desktop side of any project first, while leaving the mobile part as a secondary goal that gets accomplished later; and that even with the rise of responsive design, developers often begin with the “full size” site and work their way down.

There is a growing trend, however, towards flipping this workflow on its head, by targeting mobile devices first, and then working your way up to larger, desktop versions.

“When you start with the desktop platform, you tend to want to take advantage of everything that platform has to offer. You build an amazing product that leverages lots of great technology, only to realize that none of it scales well down to mobile,” Johnson explains. “This can and does lead to severely watered down mobile products that feel more like an afterthought than a polished, finished product.”

The result tends to be a different story, when examining the progressive enhancement workflow, Johnson notes, as developers are starting with a project that is both “super lean and quite impressive.”

“You’ve taken all of that starting energy and put it into creating a product that looks and functions well despite the many restraints that you faced. More importantly, you’ve already gone through the problem of trimming down the content to its most vital elements,” Johnson states. “Now when it’s time to bring this design to the desktop, instead of facing the decision of what to cut and how to water down your product, you instead get to decide how to make it even more robust.”

It is not just features that need to be reconsidered, but the fundamental way that users are interacting with your website.

Writing for, Luke Wroblewski explains that when designing for desktops, adding more links, menus and buttons for website users to interact with, comes naturally; but when designing for mobile devices, this click-heavy approach must be reconsidered.

“Gone are big screens that can display lots of user interface controls and the precise mouse controlled cursors that allow people to use them. In their place are small, palm-sized screens and bulky fingers for input,” Wroblewski wrote. “We can no longer just worry about how to fit more controls on a small screen. Now, we have to focus on where the action is — on people’s primary flow through an app.”

According to, along with the technical positives, from a design perspective, the mobile first approach forces developers to focus on ease of usability; because roughly 80 percent of the screen size is taken away, making it important to utilize space in a much more conservative manner.

“This helps in keeping the core values you want to present to the users in the forefront without flooding [them] with superfluous amounts of filler,” Zurb’s report notes. “Then, as you progressively enhance for larger devices and screens, it helps keep you focused on the core values of your site and what the user can accomplish when visiting.”

Regardless of the percentage of visitors to your site arriving via mobile device, either today, or in the future, adopting a mobile first design philosophy makes a lot of sense due to the fact that by starting with smaller building blocks, it forces developers to think more carefully about the granularity, integration and presentation of their site’s content; as well as the optimum navigational structure to make this material more readily discoverable by the visitors to their site. In short, a mobile first design approach helps improve your site’s user experience and thus its overall impact on customer satisfaction.

“Let’s stop trying to compress large amounts of information from the top-tiered tech devices into the lowest of the low tech devices,” Zurb concludes. “Let’s let our endusers get stuff done by developing mobile first designs.”

While it may be much easier to implement such a dramatic shift in concept on a new site or when performing a redesign, than when trying to make incremental upgrades to an existing desktop-only or moderately mobile compatible site, the effort should prove more than worthwhile and help to future proof your investment. Talk to your web development team to map out a plan for a mobile first, responsive site. Your customers will thank you.