Mobile First, User First, or Content First?


If you’ve been involved with digital projects in the last decade, I’m sure you’ve heard about the below approaches: mobile first, user first, content first… Apparently being first is all that matters. So what are these approaches all about? And do we need to choose one of them or are they compatible?

Mobile First

Mobile first is the best known of these three. Basically, it’s an approach to web design in which we design the visual look and feel as well as functionality of a website, with a mobile device as the starting point. Only after that, we define how the same content and functionality can be displayed on a desktop. Traditionally websites got designed for desktops. When mobile devices became more common, organisations tried to optimise the way their desktop site got displayed on mobile devices. This was achieved in many occasions by hiding page elements. But that’s not ideal as your mobile device is still downloading the data, slowing down the load time of site and eating up data from your data plan. As web professionals realised the shift of internet usage from desktop to mobile, they changed the starting point to the “mobile first” approach.

User first

The user first approach is much more than a design principle. Rather I would describe it as a philosophy. Traditionally web projects started with brainstorming sessions around questions like:

  • What are the corporate messages we want to portray? (corporate website)
  • What are the unique selling propositions for this service? (campaign, product site)
  • What types of news categories and formats do we want to publish?” (media websites).

The result were too often egocentric navel-gazing websites. The “User first” principle says the key question for any web project is:

“What does the visitor of my website want from my site? What is the purpose of its visit?”.

And websites need to be designed in the first place to make it easier for the user to fulfill that user need. By doing so, you will get happy users, who are more likely to come back.

Content first

Finally, the content first idea is a reaction on the vast amount of superficial, but nicely designed websites out there. The importance of good quality web content has increased steadily over the last five years. Google has been a catalyst in this process by increasing the importance of content quality and uniqueness when defining search result rankings. So, simplified, ‘content first’ means: “let’s make great quality content first, and let the only purpose of all the other elements on my website (design, information architecture, technology) be to help shine my great content. Technology and design at the service of great content.

So which approach should I pick for my project? 

Well, the good news is, you don’t need to pick one of the three. Mobile first is about the technology. It makes sense if your user base is shifting to mobile usage. Content first is about … well, content, obviously. Mobile and desktop users both like quality content. So there’s no incompatibility there. And User first is about what importance and priority I will give to what content and functionality. And again, mobile and desktop users both value a good user experience as well as content that speaks to the purpose of their web visit. So each approach addresses three different things, and yes, they are compatible. Three great ideas to have in mind in your next web project.

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Mobile First, User First, or Content First?

If you’ve been involved with digital projects in the last decade, I’m sure you’ve heard about: mobile first, user first, content first… Apparently being first is all that matters at project start. But does it? Do we really need to choose one approach or can these be compatible?