OPINION: Can we now finally put the madness of ‘mobile first’ to bed?


12 Jul 2014

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Every time I hear the phrase ‘mobile first’ all I hear in my head is ‘customer-last’. How did anyone ever think it might be a good idea to over-simplify a customer’s online experience of a business or brand to single device?

The digital industry needs to ask itself the classic matriarchal question, "If Eric Schmidt told you to put your head in the fire, would you do it?" Unfortunately, for the industry, and the clients of some of its agencies, the answer might well be a resounding yes.

In February 2010, then-Google CEO Schmidt proclaimed the internet giant a mobile-first business, where product design and application testing centred on mobile devices first. Accurately forecasting the diminishing importance of desktop and the rapid growth of tablet and smartphone platforms, he quite appropriately announced Google was changing to align itself with the market forces he observed.

Sure enough, in the following year, smartphone and tablet sales were greater than PC sales for the first time in history. This trend has intensified since 2011, and let's face it, is unlikely to be reversed any time soon, or indeed ever. Globally, mobile data traffic is rising 78pc year on year.

So in isolation, the story is a simple one, of the very capable CEO of the world's largest internet company, identifying changes in the marketplace and aligning company strategy appropriately. Schmidt was observing a set of circumstances and drawing a set of conclusions and implications for his company as a result.

I can't speak for Schmidt but I don't see any evidence that he was doing anything more than that. I don't think he was saying that every digital business should always start the design process with mobile. I don't think he was saying that every sector should focus user tests on mobile. Or every application, every website, every app, every problem or every solution.

Humans = complexity

Business strategy, marketing planning, yes even digital integration has always been much more difficult, much more nuanced, much more complex than this. The reason that these are more difficult, nuanced and complex is because they involve humans. What's more, these humans or customers or users (delete to taste) are living in an increasingly complex world, where interaction with a brand or organisation spans online and offline, and from desktop to smartphone to tablet, entirely naturally and effortlessly.

We see the advert while watching television at night and quickly respond by looking something up on our smartphone. This prompts us to speak to our colleague over coffee the next morning and visit a website at lunchtime. At the weekend, we might check competitors' websites (using a search engine to find them) on our tablet before deciding to make a purchase and go to the high street to buy the product. This sales transaction effortlessly bleeds online and offline and across devices and channels.

So why on earth would a business seek to connect to that user under the overly-simplified hackneyed all-too-easy banner of 'mobile first'? Give me a break; if I was looking for easy answers to difficult questions I would have gone to Slideshare and searched for 'inspirational quotes from digital leaders'!

It's difficult to know if a recent comment by Google's VP of display advertising Neal Mohan is a change of direction, a clarification of old strategy, or simply a case of stating the obvious. Speaking at a recent online ad conference in Mountain View, California, he said, "If you're just focusing on mobile, you're solving yesterday's problems. Ninety per cent of consumers start a task on one device and finish it on another," he noted. "Consumers are way ahead of where advertisers and publishers are."

How can this be news?

"Users in 'doing things their own way and in a manner which suits their lifestyle' shocker"!

This isn't an effort to have a go at one of the most innovative, successful and brilliant companies that we have ever known, rather it's a spirited attempt to ask the internet industry to stop treating them like gods, stop over-simplifying their messages, and to continue to make digital strategy and design decisions by focusing on the thing that matters most, the user.

Gareth Dunlop

 Gareth Dunlop Gareth Dunlop owns and runs Fathom, a user-experience consultancy that helps ambitious organisations get the most from their website and internet marketing by viewing the world from the perspective of their customers. Specialist areas include user testing, usability and customer journey planning, web accessibility and integrated online marketing. Clients include Invest NI, Power NI, Property News, Ordnance Survey Ireland, and Enterprise Ireland. Visit Fathom online.

Mobile devices image via Shutterstock