Mobile First? Not So Fast

Everyone is focused on “mobile.” Broadly, the devices we can fit into our pockets (phones) or neatly under our arms (tablets). The rate of growth in mobile is paired with a growth in attention paid to these devices, eyeballs and attention. The form factors are smaller. It requires more thought to fit everything into a smaller space. In the Apple iOS, apps don’t really interoperate, so user experiences are in silos. It’s hard to discover new apps, let alone have the time to use them all once they make it to our devices. And, unless key actions (such as transactions) are baked into the native experience, it’s easy to lose those the attention of those eyeballs.

As a result of this explosion, the latest conventional wisdom is “mobile first.” And, I agree with the sentiment. However, I do believe we are in 2-3 year window where this convention, if applied in the most absolute sense, may not be quite right in all cases. Yes, there are apps that are built around key mobile device sensors (like the GPS) that have no option but to be “mobile first.” However, for the rest of the pack, rushing to build for iPhone and iPad first could waste precious time. Here’s why, and let’s consider the iOS context….

Right now, helping your future “users” discover your app in Apple’s app store is probably similar in odds to being struck by lightning. I wrote a post last year about how hard it is to get discovered here, and it was clicked on over 10,000 times and made the front-page of Hacker News. If you’re currently dealing with this, you should read it, click here.

But, even “if” your creation is discovered, there’s still less of a chance that you’ll have the time to train your audience on what the app or service is, and what your brand stands for. There are exceptions of course, but they are usually either tied to basic mobile device functionality (like Instagram instead of the Camera app, or Whatsapp instead of the native SMS app) or leverage a very specific sensor (like Highlight or Foursquare). Outside of these, the reality is that most consumers in a mobile context won’t have the attention available to truly understand your special app. Now, if you’re lucky to have an app that does get discovered, you then have to use every trick in the book to drive virality and engagement — lots of push notifications, gaming app store reviews, and baking social into all actions in the product itself. The market is making them nervous to pump up their numbers, the downloads, users, activity, and engagement metrics.

What I’ve observed as a result of these challenges is a small group of founders of consumer-facing startups who have big “mobile” plans, but are priming the pipe by playing with the web first. Why? There are many reasons. First, they can build a core audience by finding willing souls through many different acquisition channels. Second, this gives them time to learn what that audience wants, how they behave, and other relational data. Third, it gives them time to familiarize their brand and use case with potential mobile users. That little extra time for familiarization may go a long way, giving builders a bit more control over that initial bump in distribution. So, overall, yes, “Mobile First” is probably the right thing — but in the immediate term, the web can be integral to the process, too.

Haywire is written by Semil Shah, and is published under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Copyright © 2014 Semil Shah.

“I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.”— Epicurus