The following post was written by Ofer Brandes, SVP Strategic Effectiveness at Payoneer, during his tenure as CTO at Viola Ventures (2003-2019).
“Mobile-First” is a term widely used to describe a design principle that’s usually applied to the creation of apps, websites, email newsletters etc., but we at Viola Ventures also use it when we evaluate the go-to-market strategy of companies that we consider investing in.
Here’s what I mean:
“Mobile-First” and Responsive Design
The term “Mobile-First” (coined in 2009 by Luke Wroblewski) suggests that web applications and sites should be designed and built with ‘mobile’ in mind right from the beginning rather than adapted for mobile only after the PC version is complete.
The idea is to start designing for the device with the most limitations first (phone) and then add functionality as you go for devices with bigger screens and more capabilities (tablets and PCs), because this way even the most limited version will already include the most important functionality (one of the ways to achieve this is through responsive design). The alternative to “mobile first” is a “graceful degradation” from the full functionality version on the PC to the mobile phone, which might prove problematic.
Watch Luke explaining the “mobile first” concept (video length approx. 4 minutes)
Mobile First as Business Concept
This “mobile first” principle lives in the domain of UX design (it’s where you’ll find it on Wikipedia and on most search results on the topic on Google), but we at Viola have an additional perspective on “mobile first” which refers to the business strategies of companies. It’s related to UX design considerations and shares some of its motivations, but it’s different.
One argument in support of a mobile first strategy, besides the concerns around negative side-effects of “graceful degradation”, is the dominance of mobile devices in our lives (smartphones in particular). More and more people – especially young people – use phones and tablets as their main way of accessing the world. In fact, mobile usage is so prevalent that some companies are even being created based on a mobile-only premise. So given that it’s such a major platform, or even THE major platform, it deserves to be the focus of product design and development.
Following the same reasoning, we believe that companies should take a “mobile first” approach when crafting their product strategy and go-to-market. It can be a “build for mobile first” approach, but it can also just be “design for mobile first”. In other words, we don’t claim that a company should always build a mobile offering first, but we do insist that the company has a mobile strategy from day one.
This mobile strategy may differ between companies. For example, consumer-facing companies tend lean towards it naturally whereas enterprise software companies typically find it less obvious. The answers may be different depending on the company, but the main thing is to ask the question from the very beginning and give it its due attention. The only inadvisable approach is to postpone the question until it’s too late. To say “let’s make some progress first and figure out what to do with mobile later” can be dangerous because it means you may end up with no mobile strategy at all.
This brings to mind what happened a decade ago with the Internet: Companies that continued with a “business as usual” approach and merely added a website just so that they can have an online presence were often outdone by “native online” companies. Just as online strategy deserved attention then, mobile strategy deserves attention today.
There are voices that challenge the “mobile first” approach. Companies may decide that Mobile-First may not be the best strategy after all, and we will respect a well thought-out strategy that adopts such an approach. But coming to us with this type of carefully considered strategy means that you already did, in fact, “think about mobile first”, and that’s the whole point.