Moving from "Mobile First" to "Mobile Only"

by Robert Moss

The concept of "mobile first" development—that is, developing for mobile device contexts first when creating a user experience and then adding layers of enhancements for larger form-factor devices—has been around a good four years or so now. (The term was coined by web designer Luke Wroblewski way back in 2010.) But, it's still taking a long time to work its way into people's minds.

On a regular basis I hear from clients that they have on their list of upcoming projects "our mobile app”—either launching a mobile app for the first time or enhancing the one they already have out there to make it more useful and "drive adoption." Though they may even cite "mobile first" philosophies, it's clear that in practice a "mobile app" for their organization is still a sort of adjunct to their core business—something generally being pleaded for by their sales and marketing departments so that they have something new and shiny to brag about or, unfortunately all too frequently, because their main competitor just released a mobile app and they desperately want to say, "we have one, too!"

But, the world is shifting beneath our feet even as we race to catch up with the last iteration of mobile technology. Increasingly, mobile devices are ceasing to be another way our customers can do business with us and are instead becoming the only way that a large number of our customers will do business with us. And, that means that for many users it's not a question even of "mobile first" but of "mobile only."

In the first stages of mobile application development, applications tended to be about “accessibility”—giving users a way to access those functions they needed—checking their email, looking up the status of an order, finding the nearest retail location of a store—when they were away from their office or their homes and not able to access their computers. It didn't have to be as rich and effective an experience, and it didn't have to be a complete experience. It just had to let them get a few basic things done.

In most companies' initial forays into mobile-enabling their business, they typically looked to their web site and selected the top 5 or 6 functions that their customers or members needed—with an eye, in particular, for things that would be useful when someone was out and about doing things like shopping, commuting, and eating at restaurants. And, that made sense when you looked at mobile devices as an adjunct, something used when a regular desktop or laptop computer wasn't available.

But, increasingly mobile devices are becoming the primary way of accessing the Internet by a significant number of Americans. Pew Research Internet Project reports that in 2014, 64% of Americans use their smart phones to go online and, of them, 34% go online mostly using their phone and not via a larger device such as a laptop or desktop computer. Not surprisingly, those numbers skew even higher if you just look at younger Americans. 83% of 18-29 year olds, for instance, have a smartphone vs. 49% for 50-64 year olds.

For businesses, that means a totally new line of thought when it comes to conceiving and designing mobile applications. Can your customers do business with you from initiation through the full breadth of the customer lifecycle? That is, can they find you, shop for and purchase your products, maintain the relationship for customer support and maintenance, and ultimately renew or buy more of your products—all on a mobile phone?

For some innovative businesses, like Uber, the answer is a resounding yes. In fact, despite having been an Uber user for over a year, I didn't even know whether they had a consumer web site until I checked it out while writing this post. It turns out they do, but you can only update your profile and view trip history, not actually buy their products—that is, request a ride—through the browser site.

Most other businesses, especially ones with older, more established business models, are somewhere on the spectrum from "not mobile enabled at all" to "somewhat fully mobile." But, many are starting to catch up. Almost all the big retail banks now support check deposits on their mobile apps, which may well do away with the last reason many of their customers have to ever visit a physical bank location. In an interesting digital and bricks & mortar hybrid, the major retail pharmacies like Walgreens and CVS have apps that let their customers print photographs directly from their phone and pick them up at their convenience that the nearest retail location.

That key question—how could customers do business with us solely over their mobile phone?—needs to be at the front of minds when we are formulating our digital commerce strategies and designing our online use experiences. After all, if our company isn't the one doing it, there's probably someone else out there who is.

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