Who is still designing desktop first?

over 5 years ago from , Product manager & designer

Some data:

From Benedict Evans newsletter: US 'Black Friday' spending: up to 70% of ecommerce traffic is now mobile

From Google marketing blog: Across the millions of websites using Google Analytics, more than 50% of all web traffic is now coming from smartphones and tablets

From statcounter: Mobile and tablet internet usage exceeds desktop for first time worldwide

Internet usage worldwide

but, like every "web" designer I know (including me) is still designing desktop first.

Is this your case?



  • Account deleted over 5 years ago

    I’m an in-house designer building web-based software for a manufacturing company. Most of our internal software is used on desktop or EPOS screens, so making the (usually information dense) interfaces work in tiny screens would be a waste of time.

    Best advice: don’t blindly follow conventions. Mobile-first design may be appropriate for some things, but pointless for others. Assess each project and choose the most appropriate techniques.

    66 points
    • Xavier BertelsXavier Bertels, over 5 years ago


      0 points
    • Austin Knight, over 5 years ago

      I completely agree. You have to take an informed approach to this.

      Working for a B2B company, 80% of our users are on desktop. And if you look at the percentage that convert into paying customers, it's even higher. Users will commonly do very early research on mobile, but are not comfortable with purchasing an expensive product without diving into the information on desktop. For this reason, I design both experiences in tandem, but I give priority to the desktop experience when there is a conflict between the two.

      Yet I will still inevitably have people criticize me for not designing mobile first here. They're basically saying, "Why aren't you designing for 20% of your users instead of 80%? That's what Luke and Jeffrey say you should do...you must not be a good designer if you don't." Think about the absurdity of that viewpoint. The road to mediocrity is paved with best practices. I choose to design for my specific audience and product, not for the dogma of the design community.

      At the same time, I have a B2C client who's users are 73% on mobile. And they're happy to convert there. Guess which experience gets priority here?

      But honestly, I tend to always design both together. I've found that there is usually a strong relationship between the two. Many users are not single-session visitors. They'll first visit on one, come back on the other, and eventually convert. But both played a role and both should deliver a consistent and thoughtful experience.

      Just because mobile first is the dogma of the day doesn't mean it's right for every project.

      7 points
      • Benjamin DautonBenjamin Dauton, over 5 years ago (edited over 5 years ago )

        I choose to design for my specific audience and product, not for the dogma of the design community.


        13 points
      • Account deleted over 5 years ago

        That wasn’t my point. I’m not making a trade-off by designing our web apps for desktop. That’s the only hardware that runs the software. I’m targeting 100% of our users, and satisfying their requirements.

        2 points
        • Austin Knight, over 5 years ago (edited over 5 years ago )

          And what's keeping you from offering your software on mobile?

          Most of our internal software is used on desktop or EPOS screens, so making the (usually information dense) interfaces work in tiny screens would be a waste of time.

          Your software is best fit for desktop (and that's where your users prefer to be), so that's what you design for. Whether it's 100% or 80% isn't quite as relevant here. It's that you've chosen to design in the medium that your users are in. That's what I was getting at. I was agreeing with your approach the entire time, and then offering my own experience to show why I agree with it.

          0 points
      • Ege GörgülüEge Görgülü, over 5 years ago (edited over 5 years ago )

        Hey Austin!

        I agree with everything you say here but I'm curious to hear your thoughts on a specific issue.

        I choose to design for my specific audience and product

        First off, I do realize that this is very product-dependant and may not apply everywhere, but:

        What if you think there's a substantial potential market on mobile for a given product with similar usage statistics (e.g. 80% desktop)?

        How would you know if you're missing out on a big market by catering to existing customer base only?

        Obviously, research would be needed to validate hypotheses, just wondering how would you react to such a dilemma.


        0 points
        • Austin Knight, over 5 years ago

          Hey Ege, great question. This is the big dilemma that always comes up in this conversation; "is our mobile audience appearing small just because we haven't tapped into it?" It's a valid concern and one that I've contemplated a lot as well.

          This is primarily why I advocate designing for both, if you can. We're a multi-device world and this just makes sense. Don't design desktop-first and don't design mobile-first. Because as weird as it may sound, you could actually flip this argument on mobile-first design too. "Is our desktop audience appearing small just because we're prioritizing mobile?" Hence, my focus on designing the experiences in tandem. Do that and you'll have a host of metrics that can indicate which experience is favored and where improvements should be made.

          But let's say that you can't design for both. Perhaps you're building a huge software that wouldn't work well responsively, so you'd need to produce a mobile app to augment your pre-existing desktop app. At any rate, I would hope that you and your product team have a strong enough feedback pipeline with your customers to where such a massive request / opportunity would surface itself organically.

          Of course, you could fear that you've just attracted an audience that prefers desktop and would never request mobile, even if there is another audience out there that wants it. While unlikely, it's still a possibility. This is where I would use qualitative research with non-users. Get outside of your user base, demographic, etc. and test with them. I've been known to take this to the extreme and it's resulted in some of the best learning experiences I've had; it's humbling to watch a total stranger shit all over your design.

          Finally, I think a little common sense and designer influence is in order. Some software and workflows just aren't ideal for mobile (take Daniel De Laney's example). It's up to you to determine if that's the case with your software or if you think there's room for innovation. In our case, we studied what our users liked to do on desktop vs. mobile and built our software around that. Our mobile app is basically an insights / analytics dashboard, because we found that while users would like to see how their site is performing while on-the-go, they don't want to build their website on a phone. That's best for the desktop app.

          So you'll notice that what I said here is actually pretty basic in principle: set yourself up so that you can quantitatively and qualitatively verify that your product roadmap is correct (this transcends desktop vs. mobile, but it also includes it). Run high-level tests with non-users, create prototypes and test them with customers, build actual features into your product and monitor usage. Or perhaps, try asking people. They'll usually tell you what they want. This is why qualitative and quantitative research are so important when developing a product roadmap. Most people know this, but they execute on it poorly.

          TL;DR: Build both, if you can. If not, you should be able to surface this information through your (hopefully) pre-existing quantitative and qualitative feedback channels. As a designer, it's also going to be up to you to help advise on what is useful, desirable, and possible.

          1 point
    • Daniel De LaneyDaniel De Laney, over 5 years ago (edited over 5 years ago )

      The interfaces I design are used in Network Operations Centers and the like. I don't expect to see my interfaces on anything smaller than a tablet. They're usually shown on desktop-class displays, and maybe giant status monitors at the front of the room. Mobile-first would be kind of dumb.


      7 points
      • alec salec s, over 5 years ago

        This is so cool! I love hearing about UI in contexts like this. What a rad experience to design for.

        3 points
  • Martin PetersenMartin Petersen, over 5 years ago

    For Web, i design desktop and tablet first, since you get the whole picture and can design a more immersive and visually striking experience on a big screen, than on a mobile device. With mobile in mind from the beginning, a mobile version with some cuts of functionality and content, is easy to implement as well. When going mobile-first, you miss out a lot of possibilities that the web in full- and big-screen actually has to over. I guess, that's pretty common or?!

    9 points
    • Ignacio Palomo Duarte, over 5 years ago

      For Web, i design desktop and tablet first, since you get the whole picture and can design a more immersive and visually striking experience on a big screen, than on a mobile device.

      And don't you think this is sort of wrong? :-S

      I mean, if most of your users are going to perceive your design in a mobile device, shouldn't we spend most of our time making an immersive and visually striking experience in mobile?

      0 points
      • Martin PetersenMartin Petersen, over 5 years ago

        Of course that too. Just there are out of space reasons more possibilities to visualise things than in mobile. Not meaning that the mobile version sucks instead. Plus “most of your users” doesn't fit for all digital products / websites and sectors.

        2 points
  • Taylor PalmerTaylor Palmer, over 5 years ago

    Breakdown of the stats for my personal site.

    Site stats

    Why would I design mobile first?

    7 points
  • Ale UrrutiaAle Urrutia, over 5 years ago

    I usually design for different devices/breakpoints at same time but still desktop first. Even when thinking ideas for a project I picture a website as desktop version... probably because of my age!

    4 points
    • Duke CavinskiDuke Cavinski, over 5 years ago

      I do this too. Setting the stage in a large viewport gives me a handle of the problem/strategy and features, and then after that sandbox portion is sort of solidified, I just start working through all the viewports at the same time.

      2 points
    • Ignacio Palomo Duarte, over 5 years ago

      Thanks for your honesty :-)

      I thought it was obvious that, if you are building a physical ATM machine or a tablet native app you shouldn't take a mobile first approach — that doesn't make any sense!

      But, if you're designing for web and you see the graph trend, it nearly does not make any sense to design in desktop and trim it down later to mobile. We should be spending most of our time tweaking and fine tuning the mobile experience.

      I've been also a long time web designer, so maybe the age has something to do...

      0 points
      • Ale UrrutiaAle Urrutia, over 5 years ago

        If you see the graph and Google Analytics you can see how a large percentage of visits still comes from large screens so no need to change the way I've been working so far.

        On top of that, I don't believe in a one-solution-fits-all for anything in life, including design.

        0 points
  • Duane SmithDuane Smith, over 5 years ago

    For me, it depends entirely on the project. B2B sites with 70-80% desktop use are definitely still designed desktop first; B2C sites are almost always mobile first. In all cases, I educate clients on the difference, review their audience, check analytics, and consider which is appropriate before recommending an approach.

    3 points
  • Liam FLiam F, over 5 years ago

    I sort of do both at the same time, I've ran into issues when you solely focus on one. I've had clients who have requested mobile first designs, that they wish to approve then move onto desktop. I have avoided doing this purely because things can change and they way you present on desktop may influence elements on mobile.

    Mobile is certainly good for looking at what the key elements you need in a design are because you don't have lots of space to waste, but desktop is important. I have seen too many obviously mobile scaled up websites recently and I don't care for that trend regardless of whether or not mobile is first.

    2 points
  • alec salec s, over 5 years ago

    I've always done both in tandem unless the audience was overwhelmingly mobile or desktop, then it's really a matter of who your audience is. It makes no sense to put one before the other in most cases, certainly not if converting traffic is a 50/50 split.

    I think working on mobile "first" leaves things to be desired on the desktop front, why sacrifice unless you need to? I love doing both in tandem because if I decide to change some things in one layout, it's easy to go and apply them in the other context while the idea is still fresh. Instead of retro-fitting whichever is the least important.

    1 point
  • Philip AmourPhilip Amour, over 5 years ago

    It all depends on what's your audience. Currently designing & implementing mobile-first and extending for bigger screens using media queries.

    1 point
  • Mike HeitzkeMike Heitzke, over 5 years ago

    Designing for your particular user needs and context is always key. At the same time, designing mobile first forces you to really distill down what is necessary on the screen due to the multiple constraints. Even if it doesn't end up being used while you're standing in line somewhere, it can be a worthwhile exercise.

    Playing devil's advocate here, but a pared down, leaner approach to layout can conceptually lead to a better desktop experience, no? As humans we're more likely to fill in empty spaces with items that might be unnecessary when we have it available.

    1 point
    • alec salec s, over 5 years ago

      I agree but I don't think the mobile revolution should be what forces designers to think about the distillation of information. That's a good practice regardless.

      1 point
      • Mike HeitzkeMike Heitzke, over 5 years ago

        Totally agree. It can be an easier process when forced into the constraints, especially when starting out. It's easier to eat healthy when you throw away all the stuff you shouldn't be eating haha.

        0 points
  • Andu PotoracAndu Potorac, over 5 years ago

    You need to approach design for the context you're designing for. Have a read here: http://jamesarcher.me/mobile-first

    1 point
  • Bent StamnesBent Stamnes, over 5 years ago

    Definitely desktop first, but then again, we make desktop software, so. :) While a lot of software is moving to the browser, app development software is still firmly fixed in the realm of ye'olde desktop computers. :)

    1 point
  • Dana (dmxt)Dana (dmxt), over 5 years ago

    I write desktop first but the way I write the code it's already mobile ready.

    0 points
  • Matt WalkerMatt Walker, over 5 years ago

    Designing enterprise software. So it all depends on the products users and context.

    0 points
  • Tyler Cutforth, over 5 years ago

    I think those don't take into account the usage of the internet. I wonder if a high percentage of those mobile users are jr. high, high school or even college students who are using their phone as the main source of communication with the internets. I don't think that requires designers to boot all knowledge of desktop and completely focus on mobile first. A marriage between both is always the answer in my books. long story short, I always keep mobile in consideration for user interaction, but focus on desktop first.

    0 points
  • Alex TalmonAlex Talmon, over 5 years ago

    Depends on the project. Sometimes both at the same time.

    If we'd like to sell a design or concept it sells better to the client on desktop (yup, guess they still think bigger is better / more impressive..) But we always also show a mobile version to share our thoughts on the mobile experience.

    0 points
  • Malte NuhnMalte Nuhn, over 5 years ago

    *Rules of thumb are good reminders to challenge your habits, but no substitute for thinking :) *

    My decision tree:

    1. What would I want people to use? Is there a platform that's objectively far superior for the task, with the best experience on each?
    2. Which platform do people actually use today?
    3. Did we cause this? Ie did we build it so that the experience on the other platform sucks?
    4. How are the limits (cultural, technical) that affect 1 and 2 likely to change for the group of users I'm targeting? Are there technical changes or adoption of patterns that will influence behaviours in the time horizon of my design?

    _So, applying this to Tableau (not my product) 4 years ago:+

    1. Better on desktop bc it reduces cognitive mapping and avoids work steps, except for dashboard consumption.
    2. Mostly Desktop for both
    3. Yes, it sucks. But probably not why
    4. Late adopters. Gradually becoming more comfortable w/ mobile apps for data consumption; expectations of information parity. Small screens.

    Conclusion: design desktop first, but invest preliminary energy into mobile consumption (monitor, experiment, test)

    Apply same to, say, CNN today, get different conclusion. Apply same to Tableau today and see how (4) has shifted and larger screens open up new possibilities for better experience.

    0 points
  • William LeeksWilliam Leeks, over 5 years ago

    I would definitely second a lot of the comments here about designing for your user base, etc.

    However, one thing I think important to add is that, in my mind, ‘mobile first’ is less about your visual starting point and more about keeping performance in mind when developing. E.g. starting with lightweight CSS and adding min-width breakpoints, that sort of thing.

    0 points
  • Metin SarayMetin Saray, over 5 years ago

    I Consider mobile when designing a website, but I like the real estate and I still "believe" the experience of the desktop interaction, so if it's up to me, I design for Desktop first.

    It's really about the use-case though. I don't think it's necessary to have a rich experience on visiting a site on your Mobile Safari browser... To me it should be fully utilitarian. So, for a proper design execution, I go desktop first... Is it wrong? I don't think so, If I can, if it's a bit freer project, why not! I trust my designer guts!

    0 points
  • Ryan Hicks, over 5 years ago

    The whole mobile first approach is thinking mobile first while designing based on context to your user base and how they use your product/website. No matter where you start have a good idea of how your design scales across resolutions, and how the designs can be broken up into atomic design methodology to fit those resolutions. It doesn't actually mean designing for one target resolution or the world ends.

    0 points
  • Zach HubbardZach Hubbard, over 5 years ago

    We do a lot of web-based software for aerospace & defense. You're definitely not using an iPhone or even a tablet for some of these projects.

    The old gig, working in ecommerce, yes it was mobile first.

    0 points
  • Eytan DavidovitsEytan Davidovits, over 5 years ago

    I'm a designer at IBM working on Analytics tools, and we design desktop first. We build products for an enterprise environment and user research/testing solidified the fact that our users workflow don't involve their phones. The amount of information they need to see and the complexity of the work they do would be useless on a screen of that size.

    Though, there are other IBM products that are mobile first, but those target entirely different industries.

    0 points
  • Saul SutcherSaul Sutcher, over 5 years ago

    It really depends on the client/project

    We have over 30+ clients - fewer than 3 have websites that have more mobile traffic than desktop. Furthermore - many of our B2B clients sell large software packages. We've found that while some people use their mobile device to read the marketing info - very few purchase $5k - $40k software packages on their mobile phone.

    0 points
  • Myriam C.Myriam C., over 5 years ago

    Even if mobile is more and more used, desktop is still a huge pourcentage of views.

    Also, even for an ecommerce or any website where mobile is the first device used, unfortunately, most of my clients just… don't know how to use a smartphone. So I have to design the desktop first so my clients can project themselves into the UX and the UI. They have really poor judgment about responsive or mobile websites.

    But, I still think responsive when designing. That's really important, for my work but also for the developers behind me, to think how things will go on mobile and on tablet (I still think that tablet is under-used because of terrible UX, that device is so neglected…).

    I understand all of the "mobile first" things but for me, the real things is we have to design for ALL device, there are all important.

    0 points
  • Greg Warner, over 5 years ago (edited over 5 years ago )

    I still often do, but it depends on the project. To me, if your users are going to be on desktop and mobile in any combination, I have mobile in the back of my mind and solve for complexity first. I prefer to start with desktop to make sure that a simplified mobile approach isn't resulting in a sub-par, boring desktop experience. I'd rather solve for complexity and then make sure that can be simplified logically on mobile. That's design. In build, I think mobile first and work back up.

    0 points
  • Tim Resudek, over 5 years ago

    For my money, it makes little difference as long as you are planning, sketching, editing, and establishing hierarchy & goals before moving into visual design and layout.

    I also echo everyone that has pointed out that you should design for YOUR customers. If they're primarily on phones, then design the phone experience first and push it out to larger screens. If they're primarily on large displays then start there and adapt to smaller displays.

    0 points
  • Dana Smith, over 5 years ago (edited over 5 years ago )

    I've adopted the plan for mobile and desktop at nearly the same time, walking the client through how both will work together. This has solved a lot of the issues with desktop-first and mobile-first that we were running into.

    You can read more: http://blog.webonise.com/mobile-first-or-desktop-first-both/

    0 points
  • Charlie McCullochCharlie McCulloch, over 5 years ago

    Time to break that habit. You're not doing yourself any favours!

    0 points