Digital Design Expert: Mobile First Is Dead, Think Mobile Native

By PSFK Op-Eds and Brian Cooper

December 5, 2016

Brands are constantly playing catch-up when it comes to technology. With the advent of the internet, companies scrambled to make websites; if they didn’t, they might as well not exist. The same mad dash happened again with smartphones, and as global mobile use surpassed desktop, the marketing buzzword of the past few years became “mobile first.” The circle of life continues: when consumers migrate to a new environment, brands are never far behind.

But many brands don’t think carefully enough about their transition from one platform to the next. And this is especially true of the smartphone explosion. Just think, how many apps have you downloaded, opened once and never used again? What sticks most are mobile native applications – experiences born on mobile and designed exclusively for mobile devices.

Mobile native thinking has no regard for the desktop because it’s never had a presence there: the interface is informed entirely by phones and engineered to reflect how we actually use them. Take Pokémon Go and Snapchat, where scrolling is kept to a minimum, because it isn’t perfectly suited to mobile use. Scrolling is a hangover from desktop, that’s there if we need it, but it’s not always ideal for the spontaneous, on-the-hoof beauty of smartphone technology. Mobile native is a completely different way of thinking. It’s not simply miniaturizing a desktop offering to fit the small screen; it genuinely puts the device first. Native experiences are intuitive because they are designed to be – and that’s why we take to them.


Facebook is interesting here because although it was born on desktop, it made the transition to mobile quite seamlessly. And despite monetizing its mobile offering well too, Facebook has had difficulty adding anything new to its original proposition, turning to true innovators like WeChat and Snapchat for inspiration. It’s no secret that Instagram Stories didn’t emerge from original thinking.

In fact, the term “app” here becomes limiting, because this new wave of designing for mobile hinges on our experience of the phone as a whole. It all goes back to the founding principles of the iPhone. Steve Jobs playfully debuted the phone as three separate devices – “an iPod, a phone and an internet communicator” – combined into one. This holistic spirit remains at the heart of the iPhone and its competitors, but brands still fall down by approaching the smartphone in terms of its individual elements, as opposed to the cohesive, multi-faceted piece of technology it really is.

The smartphone camera is an excellent example of a feature that deserves to be used to its full potential. Our experience of a phone camera is about far more than simply taking photos: it marries the screen, used as a viewfinder and gallery, the sensor, to detect our friends’ faces, and location services, to record exactly where the picture was taken. Mobile native experiences recognize that our phones are a sophisticated melange of technologies. And that’s why Snapchat lenses or the augmented reality Pokémon that roam our streets have caught on so powerfully. When you view a mobile device as greater than the sum of its parts, you’re onto a winner.

So it’s crucial that brands spend some time at the drawing board before they launch an app. This isn’t a market that tolerates knee-jerk, poorly-thought -out entrants. But if you’re willing to put the time in, and come up with an idea that consumers will actually take pleasure in, there’s more than enough material to get creative with. Our phones are always evolving, which means there are always new ways to create something that captures our imagination. It doesn’t have to hinge on the camera either: with Apple’s new wireless earbuds, which are able to control Siri, voice activation is set to become much more relevant.

It’s the same with chat bots – or computer programs which simulate human conversation. Chat bots encapsulate thinking in a mobile native way: they’re able to learn and genuinely make an interface easier to communicate with, which ultimately makes it more helpful. By interacting with messaging apps, chat bots offer a great opportunity for brands to become part of the mobile interface too. If they missed the mobile shift the first time, the emergence of chat bots means brands can become almost like personal assistants, aiding us with the simple things and growing our trust in the process.

Nonetheless, simplicity speaks volumes, so complexity is best kept under the hood. Fortunately though, the sophistication of the smartphone screen does allow for a lot to go on behind the scenes. The biggest mobile successes of late don’t overcrowd the screen, they let users tap to surface up what they need when they want it. They appreciate that we prefer content that’s bite-sized and easily accessible on the go.

Our phones are central to our lives. So if brands really want to reach us, they should identify how to weave themselves into the way we experience our devices. Whether it’s helping us in our day-to-day or simply creating something entertaining, brands should start with our behavior and work back from there. It should never be about making the jump from one platform to the next, designing an experience, as with any platform, requires an understanding of the consumer first and foremost.

Brian Cooper is chief creative officer of OLIVER Group UK, which provides clients with dedicated agencies that are strategic and creative, whilst being agile and adaptive.


This article was written by PSFK Op-Eds from PSFK and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.