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In a world where device fragmentation is increasing, taking a mobile-first approach is yesterday's thinking. 

There's no doubt that the smartphone has changed the way we all engage with the world around us.

We're all glued to apps on our mobiles (Flappy Bird anyone?). And website owners have seen the steady, inexorable rise in mobile traffic to their sites, which spawned the inevitable rethink about how web experiences are delivered on mobile devices (yes, I'm looking at you responsive design).

So it isn't surprising that the world is talking about making sure you take a 'mobile-first' approach. But I disagree.

If you're adopting a mobile-first approach, you're in danger of soon coming up against the same problems that you faced as your audience started the move from desktop to mobile – namely an experience that isn't optimised for the device that the user is using.

Why? Because before you know it, your audience will be accessing your services on devices you've not even thought about yet.

And if their experience isn't optimal, they'll quickly find your competitor, who does give them an optimal experience.

Separate the service from the user interface

Software engineers have long understood the benefits of separating form from function, i.e. how something looks from what it does. By separating the two, it is possible to adjust one without (always) affecting the other. Need to reskin something due to a brand refresh? Just change the 'how it looks' part

Need to make a search function more intelligent? Just change the 'what it does' part.

It's a service, not a website

When you're next thinking of creating a website, stop for a moment. Don't think of it as a website. It's an opportunity to engage your audience with a digital service.

The way in which your audience engages with that service will change over time. They might want to engage with it using a tablet, a smart watch or even an in-car console.

So build the service and then think about how you'll give people access to that service on the many devices that they'll want to use.

Each one will have a user interface that is optimised to that device, ensuring the user has the best possible experience. If you can give them that, they're more likely to use it, come back to it more often and share it with their friends.

In technical terms, we make services available to devices through APIs (Application Programming Interfaces). These are simple, well-defined building blocks that encapsulate the functionality that the service provides.

Delivering the service on a device is then just a case of building a user interface on top of the API.

Think API first

So, the future isn't about thinking mobile first. It's about thinking API first. Only by thinking this way will we be able to efficiently deliver services across the plethora of connected devices (in the widest sense) that is coming down the track.

Are you thinking API first yet?

Matt Hardy

Published 13 February, 2014 by Matt Hardy

Matt Hardy is Joint MD & Digital Director at The Real Adventure and a contributor to Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2 more posts from this author

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Luke Hopkins

Responsive design does accommodate all eventualities (devices, environment, situations), that's the point. Mobile first is merely using a different end of the spectrum to start with, the experience should still be great on tablet, desktop, HDTV and any other gadget yet to be released. Its called Mobile First not Mobile Only.

Also what your describing of having multiple UIs is what people were doing 4 years ago. Things moved on for a reason. You want to build a fresh UI for all those devices that are on their way that you mention?

about 2 years ago

Matt Hardy

Matt Hardy, Joint MD & Digital Director at The Real AdventureEnterprise

Thanks for your comment Luke. You're correct that responsive design of course has massive benefits over building multiple UIs for different devices. I'm not suggesting that it doesn't have its place - we use it extensively.

Nor am I suggesting you build a separate UI for every single device. If a responsive approach works for the many of the devices you're targeting, that's absolutely the right approach.

But it won't work for all.

For example, if you want to deliver your service to a Pebble Smartwatch, you'll need to take a different approach.

And that's where the 'API first' approach will bring benefits. Build your service functionality once, encapsulated in APIs, then deliver it anywhere.

about 2 years ago

Pete Austin

Pete Austin, CTO at Fresh Relevance

@Matt your example of a Pebble Smartwatch is a good one for why a designer can't always separate form from function.

That thing is very small, so if they take a typical smartphone app, keep all its functions and just change the form of the UI to fit the Pebble screen, users will get a sub-optimal product that's fiddly to use.

Users would probably get a better experience from a simpler, rewritten app, covering only the use cases that are most relevant to the Pebble. This requires changing both form and function.

Some functionality can be separated out into services, each hidden behind an API, as for example we do with reports, and it's a good idea to do this as much as is reasonably possible. But it only applies to part of the total code.

So you're mostly right, but I have seen managers get the wrong end of the stick and try to mandate a total separation of form from function, and that never ends well.

about 2 years ago

Matt Hardy

Matt Hardy, Joint MD & Digital Director at The Real AdventureEnterprise

@Pete - Thanks for your comment.

You're absolutely right - there's always a balance & some functionality will always be required on the client, but as you say it's a good architectural decision to push as much as possible behind an API so it can be re-used as much as possible.

about 2 years ago

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Artur

You're putting this as if I don't need to focus on UI because I should focus on API.

You shouldn't drop the importance of UI (responsive design) just because API is so much more important.

"Why? Because before you know it, your audience will be accessing your services on devices you've not even thought about yet."
Yes, that's the nature of online-fast-paced-environment we work in. besides going mobile was something necessary 3 years ago. That's not really a short period of time. If you didn't embrace it 2-3 years ago you were already late.

Saying "mobile first" these days and expecting a praise for this statement is like saying "geocities is dead". Both old and obvious.

I like the part about importance of API, though. But that's something completely dependent on service.

about 2 years ago

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Luke Hopkins

@Matt

I see where you're coming from, I just think that it needs to be clear that an encapsulated API and a responsive, flexible UI are both key elements to the success of any project. I do see your point about thinking about functionality over design though, which is much easier to do if you plan the API before the interface.

Also, thanks for the article, it was an interesting read.

about 2 years ago

Matt Hardy

Matt Hardy, Joint MD & Digital Director at The Real AdventureEnterprise

Thanks for your comment @Artur.

I'm not suggesting dropping the importance of UI. Quite the opposite - UI optimisation for devices (existing and future) is absolutely vital for fantastic user experience.

It's more about the order in which digital service projects are approached.

I'm a strong believer in getting the overall technical architecture right first - as @Pete said - putting as much functionality as is reasonably possible behind a well-defined API. Then consider the most optimal way in which that functionality is delivered to the device and it's particular UI opportunities or constraints (whether through RWD or on-device app).

Ultimately it's about flexibility to deliver the best experience across a range of varying UIs and efficient re-use of functionality.

In terms of 'old & obvious' - yes, absolutely. But I find it amazing how many major websites still aren't optimised for mobile - so people aren't even thinking the old-hat "mobile first" yet.

about 2 years ago

Matt Hardy

Matt Hardy, Joint MD & Digital Director at The Real AdventureEnterprise

@Luke, thanks for your comment.

Agreed, both are absolutely key elements.

I guess the debate here seems to be focussing on responsive UIs. But we can't just think about responsive design as the be-all and end-all approach for the UI layer.

That's what I was trying to demonstrate with the Pebble example - RWD just won't work for that. And of course there will be future devices for which it won't work. Taking it to the extreme (and bearing in mind the ever-growing 'internet of things' sector) there may be devices that have ultra-simple, non-screen-based UIs that still need to connect to your service. That's where taking the API-first approach will serve you well.

about 2 years ago

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Lewis Dorigo

I think you’re misunderstanding what “mobile-first” thinking is (or rather, is supposed to be) about.

It’s not about really about design, or layout, or user-interface. It’s about content, and content structure.

In his book that pretty much began the mobile first thinking, Luke Wroblewski makes this pretty plain:

“With mobile first, the end result is an experience focused on the key tasks users want to accomplish without the extraneous detours and general interface debris that litter many of today’s websites. There simply isn’t room in a 320×480 pixel screen for elements of questionable value.”

When starting off with larger screens, people tend to feel the need to include a lot of extra, often useless content that serves as nothing but a distraction for what the user is trying to do.

By thinking about things with the constraints of a mobile device — the physical size, the limited performance and bandwidth — you’re forced to prioritise content, and leave out things that aren’t important to what the user is trying to accomplish.

about 2 years ago

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Mark Richardson

I can't agree with this post. As mentioned already responsive design covers a lot of the look/feel device concerns, and the "architectural" approach you're advocating of splitting look/feel from underlying tech is fundamentally flawed.

Whilst it may seem a sensible thing to do, since it allows consolidation of services, hardware and support thereof, etc. It has one fundamental problem, speed of change. Consolidated services need testing, fixing, and tweaking for *every* system or UI that uses them. If you go down this route you will no longer able to respond in a timely manner to business needs.

I'm a digital consultant who has worked for a number of large corporates and watched this happen repeatedly. Standard IT models and processes do not work for the velocity of online.

about 2 years ago

Matt Hardy

Matt Hardy, Joint MD & Digital Director at The Real AdventureEnterprise

@Lewis - thanks for your comment.

Totally agree with your last two paragraphs. But that only goes so far. The words "mobile first" tend to make people think about smartphones / tablets.

But we need to support much more than that - as I explained with the Pebble example in my comment to Luke.

As I said to Artur, ultimately it's about flexibility to deliver the best experience across a range of varying UIs (some with screens, big and small, some without screens) and efficient re-use of functionality.

@Mark - thanks for your comment.

about 2 years ago

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Jackie Wilushewski

Thanks for this article. I think that Mobile first limits the Website/Service possibilities. Responsive Design is much more robust and functional. However, when talking about the platforms we haven't even thought of yet, I'm sure Responsive Design will soon be flushed down the toilet, the cycle of Technology growing. So for now, I do agree that looking toward RD is much more efficient. I'm wondering when we are going to get to the world as we see it in Minority Report, how will we be developing both back-end, UI/Ux then?! Pretty "crazy-cool".

about 2 years ago

Stuart McMillan

Stuart McMillan, Deputy Head of Ecommerce at Schuh

@Matt, There is no way I could argue with an n-tier architecture that has separation of concerns, keeping the UI at arms length from the business logic. It's a great theory.

It's just difficult to justify the expense, as the argument often goes "We'll build API's to make us future proof, we'll be able to cope with any new devices. However, until these devices manifest, we'll just re-engineer the existing websites to use the API's, costing lots of development for little change to the user experience"

What practical advice can you offer to help roll out a new architecture that won't break the bank, and hence be more likely to get approved by "higher up"?

about 2 years ago

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Mathieu

Different devices isn't just different screen size. Think smart watch, Google glass(and all of the wearable tech really) , HUD on the windshield of your car, think fridge, oven, scale (and all the IoT). Even smartphones and tablets are not only about screen size, there's gps chips, gyroscope, vibrations, touch, front /back camera (with flash), touch interface without any mouse /keyboard. May seem obvious but all the sensors and capabilities do make all the devices very differents :)

about 2 years ago

Matt Hardy

Matt Hardy, Joint MD & Digital Director at The Real AdventureEnterprise

@Jackie - thanks for your comment. With tech changing as fast as it is, according to Moore's Law we're not far off!! ;)

@Stuart - glad you are aligned with the thinking :) In terms of practical advice...ultimately there's a cost/benefit analysis to be done.

The benefit side will require some future planning / assumptions on new behaviours. Perhaps also worth looking back at how you might have missed out on revenues had you not adapted to the move to mobile browsing behaviour (conversion rate pre-optimisation vs post-optimisation).

On the cost / investment side it's worth looking at API management platforms to help cut out some of the infrastructure grunt work in building your architecture.

Hope that helps?

@Mathieu - absolutely agree - with IoT predicted to be much bigger than smartphones, tablets and PCs all put together we have to consider how we might deliver our services to those new (maybe screen-less) devices.

about 2 years ago

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Paul Wander

@Stuart we applaud the API approach AND we have a much quicker way of encapsulating existing (desktop et al.) functionality and re-purposing - in a smart way. We have a great live example http://inviqa.com/blog/helping-feelunique-launch-a-new-responsive-mobile-site-within-6-weeks/

about 2 years ago

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Justin King, Editor in Chief at eCommerceandB2b.com

@Matt. Really good article. The problem with responsive is not responsive or different UI methods, it is analytics. When analytics tell you that your users want to use the site differently on their mobile devices than other devices then the methods you laid out make total sense. I wrote about this topic last year related to B2B, but just updated to include a few of your quotes. http://ecommerceandb2b.com/b2b-responsive-design-for-mobile-commerce/. I think responsive has its place, but not as a long term strategy.

over 1 year ago

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