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More than 50% of all web traffic in the last year came from smartphones. On top of that, four in five smartphone users have made purchases on their mobile phones in the previous six months. These numbers are growing all the time. They should influence how you think about app design and custom app development.

A mobile-first app design approach refers to how companies build their web pages and apps. Instead of designing based on how desktop web pages look, mobile-first designs with smartphones in mind.

As consumer preferences shift, this method of custom app development is becoming the norm. 

Mobile-first will influence your custom app development. UI and UX that focus on small screens first generally lead to a better consumer experience. From there, businesses can adjust their designs to accommodate larger desktop interfaces.

Let’s explore this design philosophy and look at the benefits of focusing on mobile audiences for customer acquisition and engagement.

What is mobile-first app design?

Mobile-first app design is a principle that prioritises the smartphone user experience. When mobile-first designers sit down to plan a website, they use prototypes and wireframes that show how the product should look on a smaller screen. From there, they can adjust for bigger devices.

This concept was first established in the book “Mobile First” by Luke Wroblewski. It was written at a time when users were gravitating toward smartphones as their primary way of accessing websites. The book underlines the importance of using app design to ensure a strong and engaging UX.

Once mobile app design is worked out, the other formats can follow. For example, because smartphone apps typically have fewer features, your core UX is established first. Afterwards, you can make decisions and adjustments for different devices.

This approach creates lean products with only the most essential features. You can still add extra functionality for larger devices and screens afterwards, but you can do it safely in the knowledge that the heart of your product works for the majority of users.

A Desktop-first approach designs complex feature-packed products first and then works backwards. When the smartphone version is finally considered, UX is compromised. Too often, the product is something that fails to meet your user’s expectations.

Why mobile-first custom app development is a great business strategy?

We mentioned earlier that more than half of all mobile traffic is from smartphones. But, estimates suggest that by 2025, that number will be 72%. That’s almost three out of every four users!

But, there are lots of other persuasive statistics to consider. For example:

If that’s not enough, consider this. Since 2017, Google has been prioritising mobile-first indexing. Basically, the search engine giant primarily uses the mobile version of a website to decide on ranking.  

If your site isn’t mobile-friendly, it can hurt your SEO. This process could dramatically affect sales, revenues, and conversions.

Is mobile-first different to responsive web design?

Yes. Responsive web design ensures your website works well over all different types of devices. For example, it uses adapted versions of your desktop page and adjusts it for a good small screen experience. However, this policy is still desktop-first.

As mentioned above, mobile-first is a type of custom app design development that begins with the smartphone experience and adapts for bigger screens once that works.


Advantages of mobile-first

As you can see, mobile-first has lots of significant benefits for your business. But what other advantages does this app design approach offer?

1. Building customer relationships through excellent UX

Great product design is about delivering excellent UX. If the majority of web users are via smartphones — in both raw numbers and time spent —then app design that puts them first should pay off.

User adoption and retention are driven by value. Each user has a task or a problem they need to solve, and they buy and download apps so they can do this. When you provide users with a great experience, it creates loyalty, trust, and other positive associations of quality. 

A mobile-first business strategy is focused on delivering the best, most frictionless path to value. When UI and UX care about providing the shortest route to satisfaction, it can drive onboarding, reduce customer churn, and increase your downloads and revenues.

2. Mobile-first streamlines design

Mobile-first app design keeps development focused. Instead of focusing on loading your product with features, designing for a smaller screen keeps you focused on content.

Smartphones have restrictions. For example, limited keyboards, bandwidth and screen size. These limitations mean that designers need to get creative and only include what is strictly necessary. 

Additionally, you need to remember that the way users engage with mobile products is different. Instead of strictly being at their desk, they walk around, travel on packed trains, etc., 

Compared to desktop versions of apps and websites, mobile products strip away unnecessary content and focus on core functions. This approach creates simpler, more effective products that suit the majority of users.

3. It boosts your reach

It’s estimated that about 83% of the world uses a smartphone. This number is growing by the day. Mobile-first app design caters to a massive amount of users, helps you maximise your user base and revenues, and can even give you access to new potential markets.

Optimising customer acquisition is important for any business. This fact is true for all companies, but it’s particularly pressing for niche products or industries. When you are competing for a small audience, you need to be able to reach as many potential users as possible.

4. Data and metrics

Mobile-first provides companies with a rich source of data and metrics. You can use this information to improve your product or service in several ways. 

Cookies and third-party data are harder to collect nowadays. The 2021 Apple update was a significant blow, and Google Chrome is set to kill the cookie off very soon.

The result is that first-party data will become incredibly important to data-driven organisations. But it’s not just about using demographics and lifestyle data that customers have consented to offer.

Touchscreen actions also provide other excellent user data. UX designers can collect and analyse how users navigate the app—knowing where people click (and where they don’t) can provide incredible insights into layouts, placement, elements, etc. All of this data can help power improvements of current and future apps.

Collecting metrics about how users engage with your products can help design better products and understand which features or functions need to improve or be adjusted.

Finally, data tracking allows you to offer more personalisation. Focusing on giving individual users a more tailored experience can boost engagement, acquisition, retention, and the overall experience. Take care of these crucial elements, and you can drive downloads and revenues and get some great reviews.

5. SEO improvements

Maximising SEO is a priority for any business, but this isn’t the only place mobile-first app design can help. We’ve already covered how Google’s search engine result pages (SERPs) prioritise mobile for its rankings. In short, it crawls your mobile site first.

But another crucial ranking factor you need to think about is page speed. When Google and other search engines crawl websites, they also consider bounce rates based on how quickly the pages load. 

Page load times influence bounce rates. Users are impatient, and if they open a web page and it lags, many of them will leave. For example, a 2-second page load results in less than 10% of customers leaving; a 7-second page load means one-third will go elsewhere.

Google knows this, and as a result, they prioritise pages that give the best experience. 

Building a desktop-first webpage usually involves more content. Things like images, long-form articles, videos, graphics, and more are all fine on WI-FI connected desktops, but they can reduce your page load speeds when you adapt your site for mobile.

Building with mobile users in mind means your website will be smartphone friendly in a number of ways that matter — including page speed. A quicker pace means better rankings, conversions, and sales. It’s crucial for any business that wants to survive.

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Best practices for mobile-first app design

Now that you’re clear on the benefits, it’s time to see how you can put all the theories into practice. 

1. Get your onboarding right

User onboarding is one of the most significant predictors of the success or failure of a product. It’s a vital part of:

  • customer acquisition
  • customer retention
  • customer experience

Get any of these three wrong, and you could sink your app. Get them right, and you could have massive success on your hands.

User onboarding starts the minute the customer opens your app. The basic idea here is that you guide your user towards getting value from your app with as few steps or friction as possible. 

For starters, you want to give them enough information to work with, but not so much that you overload them. Too much cognitive load hurts usability. Make your app lean and easy to use, and your users will keep coming back.

Mobile-first onboarding is about doing more with less. Make your onboarding visual or use icons and elements that are familiar. And, of course, make your interface as intuitive as possible.

Another thing you should do is stay on top of what other apps are doing. While you won’t always want to reproduce the design principles of popular apps, some UI and UX are so good that they have become standard across the industry. 

Stay on top of trends so that you know what users expect. If particular swipe gestures or particular icons become second nature, consider adopting them as a way to help users become comfortable with your app right away.

2. Think touchscreen

As users moved away from the desktop, they started interfacing with apps and websites in a novel way. Instead of using a mouse, the touch screen became how users navigate and click on products and websites.

Developers should think about touchscreen first when designing interfaces. This means choosing icons and layouts and navigation that can be done using fingers. Additionally, everything should be designed so that it’s easily visible on a smaller screen. 

3. Mobile users are mobile

We’ve all seen people wander out into traffic glued to their mobile screens. It’s not pretty. In fact, it’s downright dangerous. 

Maybe that’s a testament to how sticky and engaging apps can be. Or perhaps it tells us a lot about how users engage with apps. 

Smartphones enable users to be on the go. So icons and interfaces need to account for the fact that users will be in environments where you’ll need to share their attention. They’ll be out for dinner, walking crowded streets, travelling on transports, and everything in between. You need to make things easy for them.

4. Make feedback a priority

Feedback is essential at every stage of the design stage. Prototypes, wireframes, and MVPs should all be built with the input of users. It’s the only way that you know you are designing a UX that consumers will love.

But even once you’ve got a beta or final release, you still need to ensure you get user opinions if you want your app to be the best it can be.

Surveys, emails, and even pop-ups inside the app are good ways to canvas your users’ thoughts. However, don’t overdo it. Users are there to solve problems or perform tasks, not to answer a series of questions.

5. Unlock the power of push notifications

One of the biggest advantages of mobile-first products over their desktop equivalent is push notifications. 

Push notifications can drive user engagement with stories, reminders, breaking news, new features, and a whole host of other things. These design elements are also a great way to re-engage users with relevant, personalised messaging. 

It takes time for an app to become a big part of your users’ lives. But life is busy, and it’s easy to get distracted and forget about everything on our phones. Little prompts can serve as a great reminder.

Mobile-first offers so many personalisation options too. For example, if your users give you permission to use their location data, you can ping them with offers based on where they are.

Similarly, you can use push notifications to deliver info based on time zones, interests, or other lifestyle segments. In short, these reminders can drive revenue streams by promoting engagement, add ons, and other extras.

6. Less intrusive experience

The modern web browsing experience can be hugely frustrating. Users are caught between using ad-blocking software and supporting the websites they love. Mobile-first products can still have advertisements but be far less invasive than pop-ups. 

As a result, more users will tolerate the ads, meaning this vital revenue stream is still possible. While ads aren’t the only way to monetise your product, they’re a handy option.

7. Keep things simple

While we’ve touched up this concept several times in this piece, it’s worth underlining it one more time. Mobile-first is about making things easy to digest on small screens and devices.

Of course, designing things to be simple for the user is anything but simple. It takes a lot of thought and careful decision-making for an app to look and feel simple. 

Prioritise content and keep things as bare as possible. Readable font, simple menus, lots of white space, and only one or two columns (at max) are all design principles that can keep your interface clean and uncluttered.

8. Use a mobile-first custom app developer

The easiest way to ensure your products are mobile-first is to use a custom app developer that understands the process. 

At DreamWalk, we’ve been developing and designing award-winning apps since 2008. This wealth of knowledge and expertise means we can deliver products that offer your users the experiences they expect. 

We use best industry practices, like wireframes, mockups, and MVPs, to ensure that products are seamless and intuitive. From there, we go on to build products with a polished and professional look and feel that fits your brand and delights your users.

We put the user first. And that means designing for the devices they overwhelmingly use.


Mobile-first is about stripping design back to basics. By laying the right foundations for mobile, your product will work for most of your users. Once that’s done right, you can add complexity as you design for other devices like tablets or desktop computers.

Better data and metrics, more reach, less churn, better SEO ranking, and a more engaging user experience are just some of the benefits of a mobile-first app design. 

Mobile-first isn’t just some choice that businesses need to make. It’s an absolute necessity.


About the Author

Joseph Russell is an award-winning app designer, app strategist and founder of DreamWalk. Over his 11 year career, Joseph has helped hundreds of businesses and startup founders plan, design, develop and launch successful apps.

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