In the last few years a movement towards a ‘mobile first’ approach for new Website design has appeared in response to the growing importance of the mobile Web (I don’t need to give you stats on this stuff do I?). Typically the mobile version of a site is addressed after the desktop version has been built, but mobile first means that the focus is initially on designing the optimal experience for mobile users then the desktop (in practice, you can then build both at the same time – see responsive design).
The benefits of focusing on mobile first can be two fold. The obvious point is that the needs and constraints of the mobile Web experience get addressed without the legacy of an information architecture designed for the desktop. You aren’t attempting to reverse engineer to fit a smartphone screen or touch-orientated tablet screen. However, the knock-on effect for the desktop experience is that it can also benefit from this focus. This doesn’t mean that you are stuck with a mobile experience on a desktop, but rather its the fact that you have a better understanding of what is really important to users.
Personally, I think mobile first is a great Web development philosophy although I’d caution against blindly following any method. Its important to understand that not only is the mobile experience different in terms of screen resolution and interface, but that people may also be using mobile and desktop in completely different contexts. There are no hard and fast rules here, because there is no substitute for doing your research and following a design process to work out user needs.
That aside, lets address the main question here: is mobile first worth considering for internal enterprise systems?
Unfortunately, I think there are a couple of challenges:
- Legacy Web-based applications and intranets are going to be a major barrier to mobile first in the enterprise.
- Many mobile apps used in the enterprise are provided by vendors.
- Some tasks and activities are unlikely to work on mobile (e.g. anything that requires a large screen and fine control).
In reality there may be limited chance to design for mobile first (although you can still design for mobile around existing systems). But perhaps this is the wrong way of thinking about mobile first in the enterprise – focusing on the front-end design, as you would with a Website. Maybe a better way to thinking about this when designing for mobile first in the enterprise is the idea of ‘designing for mobile work first’. This would mean identifying overall requirements for the user experience of staff and business processes using mobile devices first, not just how to fit the interface to the device.
The side effect of designing for mobile work first would be the chance to really understand and focus on what information, communication and activities really make a difference in an organisation. If you decide you don’t need to replicate your 5,000 page intranet on the iPhone then perhaps you should ask, do we need that 5,000 page intranet at all?