Developing mobile-first for a better customer experience

The new paradigm of user and customer experiences is to look at the simplest, smallest, and lowest powered platforms first, and those who are doing so are reaping the benefits of expanded markets and simpler tools.

Mobile-first is a customer interaction methodology and a development and software paradigm all at once. It's both an overarching business strategy and a set of very different principles from one industry and company to the next. And as an SMB, it might be the best chance you have to compete on a wide stage.

The general idea is that when considering how customers, users, and stakeholders will interact with you online, you assume they're doing so from a mobile device more often, and in greater numbers, than sitting at a desk in front of a PC using a mainstream web browser.

But before digging into what mobile-first is or how to do it, it's more important to understand why you need it.

A year ago, ecommerce software developer Shopify announced that more e-commerce traffic came from mobile than desktop computers for the first time ever.

Last December, Walmart.com reported that cyber-Monday, the Monday after Thanksgiving that's become a big day for online shopping in the US, saw 70 percent of its traffic from mobile devices.

Last April, the biggest fashion retailer in the very mobile-friendly market of India, Myntra, announced it was shutting down its desktop website altogether to become an app-only platform.

If you believe predictions, 33 percent of US ecommerce transactions, and 40 percent globally, will be conducted from mobiles by the end of this year.

And with over 1.2 billion mobile web users worldwide, and 25 percent of web visitors in the US now mobile only and never using a desktop PC browser, the stats combine to paint a very clear picture. Mobile's where it's at, and regardless of the size of your organisation, that's where you need to be too.

Not an option

Why? Quite simply, your customers are already there whenever they have the chance. A Google study claimed 72 percent of users want websites to be mobile friendly.

User-generated reviews site Yelp is being transformed into a mobile tool. Unique monthly visitors have grown from around 70 million to 142 million over the last two years, with 80 million accessing the site from desktop computers and 79 million doing so from mobiles.

But that's not telling you the whole story. In the same period, visits from desktop systems grew from 60 million to 80 million, but mobiles grew much faster from 30 million to 79 million. What's more, 65 percent of searches were made from mobile.

Thankfully, small businesses in Australia -- along with the rest of the Asia Pacific region -- have the chance to do it right. said Microsoft in its recently released Asia Pacific New World of Work study.

The study, which ranked countries according to their SMB sectors' agility to leveraging new technology, like cloud and mobile, placed Australia only 7th out of 10. But perhaps more important are the statistics that 45 percent of employees in Australia and 43 percent in New Zealand use personal devices. That means a large part of your potential audience has told you where they want to interact with you.

The mobile-first methodology

Adam Fingerman, chief experience officer and founder of app developer ArcTouch, characterises mobile-first as building a better steak knife, not a Swiss army knife. Do less, he says, and do it better.

"A successful app minimum viable product (MVP) is designed for a specific user with one specific purpose it performs remarkably well," he says. "A Swiss Army knife, like a desktop website, does a lot of things, but doesn't really do any one thing well."

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Adam Fingerman, ArcTouch (Image: Supplied)

Fingerman appreciates the way mobile-first forces you to put less stuff on smaller screens, and it's one idea big companies are taking to heart. The Facebook app no longer has Messenger, and Foursquare spun Swarm out to be its own app so it could relaunch Foursquare as a much more stripped back mobile product.

Such big company actions are sage advice for the SMB market where smaller operators might assume the big services are all things to all users and feel pressure to emulate them.

Charlie Wood, managing director for Dropbox in Australia and New Zealand, says mobile should be incorporated into your business' DNA from its inception.

"Taking a mobile-first approach will benefit a small business across a variety of important customer engagement areas like mobile apps, mobile customer service, mobile optimised websites, and access to important sales collateral from anywhere," he says.

A common rule of thumb in designing the customer experience, whether in branding strategy or website development, is the concept of graceful degradation versus progressive enhancement.

When developers had to program for a growing number of devices and browsers, graceful degradation was a way to make sure the essential experience was maintained across platforms despite any shortcomings like smaller screens or plug-in restrictions.

Progressive enhancement means you start from the other direction.

"It's about focusing on the lowest common denominator like a small mobile screen," says Jay Hollywood, creative director of web, mobile and ecommerce development agency Humaan. "You then execute a simple, clear experience and then expand out to larger and more sophisticated devices and functionality from there."

He adds that it's even more important now responsive design has become the industry standard, making it possible to build one website that works the same for mobile and desktop with the same content, and the layout reformatted to suit the purpose.

A better way forward

Even though mobile platforms might sound restrictive, a mobile-first strategy has advantages. First is that strategising and programming for the device with the most limitations first will force you into a mindset of making user interactions less taxing.

Remember the old advertising axiom that it's about your customer, not you. They have a problem they want solved, and being impressed by your creative flair or budget isn't it. They want to open your site or app, order the ride, buy the shoes, or find reviews of the restaurant they're standing in front of, and then get out of it.

Charlie Wood, Dropbox Australia and New Zealand country manager (Image: Supplied)

Smaller screens, lower-powered processors, and other constraints will force you to eliminate bad user experience and establish a baseline where everything has to work responsively and intuitively, and if you don't have a million dollar R&D budget, that's an opportunity.

A truly great user experience across desktop, mobile, and tablet is rare even from a big operator. According to Sanchit Vir Gogia, chief analyst and group CEO of Greyhound Research, the variety and spread of mobile devices is flooding organisations, and they're not keeping up.

"More than 32 percent of organisations in emerging markets are struggling with developing apps that run across multiple operating systems and form factors," he says, quoting recent company research.

Preparation is everything

If you're starting up, build mobile-first into your entire business plan. Any software or website development costs money and takes time, and programming for every possible platform and device can be exponentially more expensive if you decide to roll out your desktop site for Firefox, then do Safari down the track, then think about the iOS site on the iPad, and so on.

Mobile-first will give you an overall strategy that will not only result in a better user experience, but save money as it can be done cohesively without reinventing the wheel every time.

There are as many business cases for the mobile experience as there are businesses. Just like when it comes to every business IT expense, don't do anything just because it's the done thing. Ask yourself serious questions about what you want your mobile presence to do, put yourself in your user's shoes. Develop, test, tweak, test, get feedback, and test again.

Starting small and getting comfortable by deploying a basic system that gives you a bit of real-world experience is a great idea. Install and use an online time management tool or file-sharing tool and see what you like or don't like about it.

Treat it like you would any business strategy. Do you want to increase sales? Increase brand recognition? Give customers another way to get in touch to ease your tech support burden? More often than you imagine, the answers to those questions will dictate the approach you need to take to your online presence.

Get your mobile-first strategy right, and you can stand head and shoulders above everyone else, including billion dollar names at the big end of town.