Smashing Magazine: Mobile-First is Not Good Enough: Meet Journey-Driven Design

Originally published on

In a recent sales meeting for a prospective healthcare client, our team at Mad*Pow found ourselves answering an all-too-familiar question. We had covered the fundamental approach of user-centered design, agreed on leading with research and strategy, and everything was going smoothly. Just as we were wrapping up, the head of their team suddenly asked, “Oh, you guys design mobile-first, right?”

Well, that’s a difficult question to answer.

While the concept of mobile-first began as a philosophy to help prioritize content and ensure positive, device-agnostic experiences, budgetary and scheduling constraints often result in mobile-first meaning mobile-only.

But according to the analytics data of our healthcare clients, the majority of their users are still on desktop. We want to provide a positive experience for those users and for users on mobile and tablet apps and for those using mobile browsers — and even for users having an in-person experience! It is not accurate to assume that mobile is the primary experience.

We have so many devices today, it’s impossible to assume someone will use mobile. (Image credit) (View large version)

We’ve come to the conclusion that mobile-first is not specific enough to user needs. Truly user-centered design needs to start with the journeys our users are taking and the flows they follow to complete their objectives. In other words, journey-driven design. Journey-driven design naturally emerges from a user-centered approach that factors in the who, the when and the how to reveal the truly complex set of user needs. Good design doesn’t force users to pick up the device that we designers want them to pick up; good design gives users the best of what a company has to offer on the device that the user wants to use at that point in their journey.

What’s Wrong With Mobile-First?

Early in the world of mobile, we (designers in general) essentially designed for desktops… desktops with small screens. UX designers were used to thinking about things like how their users would approach a website and what visual, linguistic and contextual clues they would need to complete their tasks, but we didn’t think about the screen’s size changing. In 1999, we merely worked with 800 pixels. Then, we expanded to 1024, then 1200. Designers rejoiced!

As mobile design improved, battery life lengthened and Wi-Fi became ubiquitous, we learned that users were likely to approach a website from their mobile screen. But all of the design considerations for desktop didn’t translate well.

The idea of mobile-first was a triumph for the user. In 2009, Luke Wroblewski introduced this best practice. Karen McGrane added to the conversation with her Content Strategy for Mobile in 2012. They found that designing with the constraints of small screens helps us to prioritize content, which leads to a better experience for the end user. In addition, the capabilities of mobile devices left more opportunities for engaging experiences.
Still, it focused on only one great experience. One variation focused on the concept of graceful degradation, which suggested that we design a perfect experience (typically for desktop), and then account for older browsers and less common devices by ensuring functionality, even if the design suffered. Similarly, we tried progressive enhancement, which suggested starting small (mobile), and then enhancing the design as the device or browser gets bigger. Neither accounted for a great design across the realm.
And, more importantly, no one intended mobile-first to mean mobile-only.

Now it’s 2017, and we assume that every project needs to be mobile-friendly; so, when budgets decrease, mobile-first does become mobile-only. After all, 34% of people use the Internet predominantly from their mobile phones, and as of April 2015, Google penalizes websites that aren’t usable on mobile. But the choice isn’t as simple as mobile or desktop. Many users switch devices mid-task, making it even more vital that we focus our content and create consistency across the experiences. In healthcare, 50% of smartphone users download health apps — which also means that 50% do not yet.

In a recent report on mobile marketing statistics, Smart Insights’ founder Dave Chafey analyzed the reports and concluded:

The reality is that while smartphone use is overwhelmingly popular for some activities such as social media, messaging and catching up with news and gossip, the majority of consumers in western markets also have desktop (and tablet) devices which they tend to use for more detailed review and purchasing.

We have to ask: Did a patient get their diagnosis via a phone call at home and then turn to their desktop, or were they at the doctor’s office searching on their mobile phone? Did that shoe shopper peek at their phone for a cheaper online deal, or did they go home and make the purchase on their tablet?

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By: Marli Mesibov

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