The challenges of going “mobile first”

Mobile first
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By far the most frequent question I’ve been asked about digital strategy over the last year is “how do we go mobile”. With predictions that mobile devices will outnumber PC and laptops during 2013 it’s a no-brainer really so why are so many web-sites still not optimised for mobile?

Mobile is not, despite what people think, a pure hardware issue … it’s not just about screen size. It’s about pervasive access, it’s about touch, it’s about continual engagement, geo-location, simplicity and speed. It’s about as far away from someone sitting at a Ikea desk at tea-time reading his or her email before browsing Facebook.

The straight answer is more involved that you might imagine. It’s made up of a number of competing issues and challenges which combine to put the brakes on going mobile.

Legacy thinking

Most companies are on their third or fourth major web-site iteration and have reached a sweet spot in terms of technology and operational management. Front-end innovation for commercial web-sites has, for many, come to a standstill over the last 5 years and investment is now directed towards marketing automation, A/B testing, social media, email communication and the development of applications.

These are all noble pursuits as we tune the digital vehicle towards efficiency & integration but every step of integration makes changing the core platform that much harder to do. So far have some companies travelled down this road that the idea of simply re-skinning their site to a new design generates panic, fear and a “do we really need to” attitude.

Once stuck in this legacy rut we naturally tend to evolve with blinkers and many marketing and IT departments are now feigning surprise at how fast mobile has grown. So despite 95% of organisations agreeing that mobile is the future less than 20% of UK organisations have a credible mobile presence.

The fix? Step out of the existing platform for a moment and imagine what you would do if you had a greenfield start. How much of what you have now is really needed? Pare the needs down to a minimum and look for a simple solution to delivering the web-site on a mobile device first. That is what you aim for and the rest can go in the bin. We are living in a world of consumable and disposable digital assets so time to stop hoarding and get the innovation cap on.


When the CEO of the business says he doesn’t use her Blackberry to surf the web it’s damn-near impossible to try and get a £50k CAPEX approved for mobile development. The Hi(ghest) P(aid) P(ersons) O(pinion) therefore rules and the drive from the board is all focussed on 5-year old methods of enhancing RoI, conversion rate, re-activation, subscription or data gathering (delete as appropriate).

Since the late noughties many agencies and suppliers have focussed on providing value-added services and it’s these services that have been promoted and sold to marketing managers and C-level executives. No-one has been selling the benefits of mobile so consequently it falls off the radar – we all knew it was going to get big but we sorta hoped that the problem would be fixed by the mobile hardware suppliers.

The fix? Sadly, fear is the only fix. Scare the living crap out of the senior management. Show them mobile adoption rates, show them your analytics which shows that even now over 20% of site visitors come from smartphones. Without a level of mobile optimisation this year, organisations will miss out a huge segment of the market.

Old technology

It shouldn’t be hard to shift to a mobile but are the current set of tools used by your organisation or agency up to scratch? Obviously not, around 75% of digital agency web-sites don’t work with mobile so can they expect to be able to understand, build, support and deliver a mobile-first digital experience.

So many sites are now built on proprietary platforms that were created 10 years ago and simply weren’t built to handle responsive layouts. If the platform used for your digital assets is more than a couple of years old it won’t be focussed around mobile and may not give you what you want – or may end up being a crippling compromise.

The fix? Sorry but it’s time to throw away the old and explore the new. That might include throwing away your old agency, or staff.

Front-end is down-market

Front-end development (the pretty bit you see) went through a period of being very un-sexy as innovation plateaued out in the mid-noughties. No longer the dream career, web developers expanded their skills portfolio to include a raft of other stuff, MySQL, PHP, Analytics et al. and as a result there is a real shortage of good front-end developers that understand and create mobile experiences. For most, they can earn more money as backend developers or information architects – this is wrong, now.

As the market catches up we’ll see good front-end developers earning what backend developers to and, to some extent, the death of heavy backend development as frameworks such as Adobe Business Catalyst or VNX 4.0 replace the need for pervasive bespoke development.

The fix? Find the good front-end developers, build on an up-to-date platform and do it now.

Cross-device design is hard

Not really, it just needs to be done by someone who understand the challenges, can see the purpose and knows what they are doing. I’m still yet to see a digital brief that illustrates a organisation properly understands the role of mobile in the coming years: Adding “must work on mobiles” to a brief does not cut it.

No fix for this, it’s common sense. Understand the role of mobile in ’13, ’14 and ’15 and make sure your strategy, partners, team, stakeholders and suppliers are bought in and can deliver.

Marketing got caught napping

Sorry folks, this is true too often. As mobile has emerged over the last few years it has been overshadowed by Social Media. Both are game changers but in different ways and should be dealt with separately. Despite lots of good articles (how about this great article on mobile from 2010?) it’s been largely ignored by marketing departments. Maybe it’s not sexy enough?

The fix? Apart from re-structuring your marketing department? Better education and a focus on the longer term performance of digital assets would help. More investment can’t be a bad idea either.

About Connected

We’ve been doing mobile-first since 2010. By the end of 2011 all new digital assets were built mobile-first. By the end of 2013, all of our existing clients will be migrated to using mobile first. We aim to be the first major web house in the UK to be 100% mobile first and this is being delivered on the VNX 4.0 Open Framework. A simplified and open platform for web development to the end of this decade that uses industry standard CMS and all that is best practice for content delivery.

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