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Mobile-First is Not Always the Right Approach

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Published:January 15, 2020
Last Modified:July 20, 2022

What is a Mobile-First Approach?

A mobile-first approach means starting with the mobile user experience (UX) and building from that small screen up to larger devices. That's the strict definition.

However, in practice, mobile-first has become synonymous with optimizing website performance for mobile devices, or even building native iOS and Android mobile apps first and worrying about web apps and desktop apps later.

In this post, we are going to dissect the obsession with the mobile-first approach and create a framework for understanding whether your business or project should follow mobile-first principles. Let's dig into the details!

What are the Shortcomings of Mobile-First?

Let's start by saying that designing for all screen sizes is necessary for 85% of applications in 2020. But that poses a new question: What is "mobile" anymore? Is your foldable phone still mobile? Is a 13" iPad Pro still mobile?

With the proliferation of devices, consumers and small business buyers often start the discovery process with Google searches from their smartphones before visiting your mobile website.

From there, a visitor might read online reviews or check your website from their computer at a later date. Creating this cohesion across marketing, branding, mobile web, and desktop web is important.

And all of this is happening before they ever engage with your product or contact your team!

You could have a mobile game, an SMB lending platform, or a mission-critical healthcare application targeting hospital networks. Regardless, people are searching and finding your brand from a variety of devices – 7 days a week.

So that all sounds like mobile is important, right? Yes, mobile is important but not every business needs to jump into a mobile-first approach.

More specifically, a mobile-first approach can quickly consume a disproportionate amount of your team's design and engineering resources – leaving a lackluster experience on larger screens. We have personally seen this happen at every stage, from a pre-funding startup to a Fortune 500 enterprise looking to launch a new product.

The fallacy is that you need to only worry about the mobile experience. That you need to scale an iOS team that writes Swift code or an Android team writes Java. That you only need to buy and embed mobile SDKs for analytics and user engagement.

The challenge is that everything else is put on the backburner and becomes subservient to the decision to design, build, and maintain native mobile apps. Furthermore, when people say mobile, they typically just mean "smartphone" and "smartphone" is boiled down to the latest Apple iPhone, Samsung Galaxy, and Google Pixel models.

All too soon, mobile-first becomes "mobile-only" without considering the overall business strategy and revenue model.

Which Companies Should Leverage Mobile-First?

There are a group of companies that should leverage a mobile-first approach. Examples include Uber, Doordash, Taskrabbit, Instagram, and Snapchat.

These applications rely heavily on the technology embedded into mobile devices, such as camera and geo-location. In addition, their users want something at the spur of the moment and have little patience to wait. Furthermore, even the companies leaning heavily into mobile have web apps that allow you to manage your account, check your orders, and more.

Lastly, and more importantly, the mobile users provide direct revenue through the mobile experience. In the world of Snapchat and Instagram, it's via mobile advertising impressions. For Uber, Doordash, and Taskrabbit, it's through mobile purchases.

(On a related note, as of this month, Instagram is testing direct messages on its desktop app.)

If your primary revenue model relies on mobile users, then you should leverage a mobile-first approach.

However, if you're pulling your hair trying to figure out how mobile users lead to engagement and that engagement can, maybe, be translated into revenue – it's a lost cause.

The litmus test is that your mobile experience must be the primary revenue driver, whether it's through ads, physical purchases, or in-app purchases.

Outside of that world, you should think of how to follow the dollars and build seamless mobile and desktop experiences that get the right people into your sales funnel.

Can You have the Best of Both Worlds?

The short answer is yes. Yes, you can.

The best of both worlds is creating a responsive design that works across smartphone, tablet, laptop, desktop, and (if applicable) smart TVs.

Most people, as mentioned above, are so fixated on building a good experience on an iPhone 11 or Samsung Galaxy S10 that they build in a lot of assumptions. Assumptions about what makes good design, what programming languages to use, and more.

Mobile performance and user experience should be considered throughout the process. We are not advocating to disregard mobile in the pursuit of a good desktop experience. However, we are saying that the world isn't binary. It's not "mobile" or "desktop". There are smartphones, tablets, folding phones, ultrabooks, laptops, desktops, and much more.

It's time to consider a solution that can adapt across these different screens and use cases.

Startups have several options available that enable you to build holistic, cross-device experiences without needing to engineer on every single platform. For instance, Progressive Web Apps, JavaScript Native Apps, and Flutter are all great solutions. They speed up your time to launch and allow you to serve clients on all device types.

Enterprises have the budget to build and support applications specific to each device type. However, we want to mention that web apps are important and need to be seriously considered. In 2020, it's expected that a user can retain a consistent experience with your brand no matter where they are and which device they are using.


The decision to go mobile-first is a discussion led by your business strategy and goals. At Tragic, we recommend that our clients start by exploring the customer journey.

Yes, it's true that many customers start the discovery process on mobile devices, but a thorough customer journey needs to understanding where your sales are happening. We have clients where sessions are split 50-50% between mobile app and web app.

But, it's often the case that the vast majority of dollars are earned on the web, especially if your offerings are expensive. People want to understand the brand before making expensive investments into software, hardware, or services.

As mentioned, there are plenty of modern tools (Progressive Web Apps and JavaScript Native Apps to name two) that enable you to support a single codebase that scales across web, desktop, and mobile.

Solid mobile design and user experience matter. But they should not come at the expense of ignoring desktop and laptop constituents, many of whom are your power users.

Tragic helps teams just like yours solve strategy, design, and engineering challenges. Contact Tragic today to learn more and get a free consultation.


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