What "Design For Mobile First!" Really Means

It's been three months since we published "Mobile Is The New Face Of Engagement," and we've learned a lot by listening to CIO customers and industry professionals talk about the stories and strategy of mobile engagement.

The thing that leaves people scratching their heads is the mantra, Design for mobile first! "What does that mean, exactly?," they ask. "Is it about user interface design?" The industry answer is that it's about user experience design, but that's not quite right. Design for mobile first! is really about business design. Let's start with a thought experiment to re-imagine what's possible on a touchscreen device:

Imagine that your service is in your customer's pocket at all times. Imagine what you could do with that honor.

You could serve your customers in their moments of need. You could use data from device sensors and your own data to understand their context, the time of day, where they are, what they did last time, what they prefer, even their blood pressure, weight, and anxiety level. You could design your mobile experience to be snappy, simple, and built around an "action button" to (you guessed it) help them take the next most likely action.

With the right data and predictive analytics, you could anticipate your customer's next move and light up the correct action button before they even know they need it. You could serve them anywhere at any time. Not just give them self-service mobile access to your shrunken Web site or forms-based transaction system, but truly serve them by placing information and action and control into their hands.

The American Airlines app on an iPhone is a good example of mobile engagement. The app interface changes based on my context. It lights up action buttons like "check in" and "boarding pass" based on what time it is and what my next flight is. (And if they're really thinking about my needs, the app might know that I'm scrambling to make a connecting flight and use the airport service APIs to let me know that the nearest Peet's coffee is opposite gate C22, on my way to the next flight at C27.)

To accomplish this kind of service, you have to think about how everything in your business supports your mobile engagement goals. Mobile is not just another channel. It is the most important channel for customer engagement. So Design for mobile first! starts with business design.

Mastering Mobile Engagement

Forrester believes that in order to serve your customers on their touchscreen devices over the App Internet, you will have to master mobile engagement and Design for mobile first! We define mobile engagement thus:

Mobile engagement means empowering people to take the next most likely action in their moments of need.

To accomplish that lofty goal, Design for mobile first! is a process to:

  • Understand what your customers are trying to accomplish in their moments of need. And that means walking a mile in your customers' shoes so you know why they reach into their pocket to fire up an app and what, specifically, they are trying to accomplish. It means putting your customer's context at the core of the offering. It's why "experience design" agencies like SapientNitro and Deloitte Digital and Cynergy are selling mobile app gigs.
  • Design your business services to intersect your customer's daily life or work. That means figuring out how what you do matches up with what they need -- and changing what you do! And that requires re-imagining smartphones and tablets as a service channel and not just another "small Web" opportunity for self-service. Mobile is not small Web. Mobile is a service to inject your business value into your customers' hands in their moments of need. Done right, your mobile service is always on in my pocket, not something I have to fetch over the Web. This is where the heavy lifting and real business re-engineering happens. This is where CEOs and product owners get involved. This is where the big money will be spent.
  • Design your systems of engagement to deliver a task-oriented service experience. And that requires you to "atomize" your business processes, to divide them up into the small chunks that customers care about and can interact with. This is where the technology gets important and hard. And it's still coming together. Vendors like Appian and Leapfactor and appsFreedom and Kony Solutions and IBM's WebSphere-based foundation for mobile computing are starting to build cloud-connected engagement platforms to tie content, systems of record, social feeds, device data, SaaS services, and especially analytics together to serve customers in their pocket. This is where IT and a new "chief mobility officer" must step up to work more closely with business people. This is a 5-8 year technology platforms journey that's only two years old.
  • Design and operate your mobile app to help customers take the next most likely action. And that means mastering task-oriented experience design. It means designing around action buttons, not forms. It means putting performance and responsiveness on equal footing with interface and brand. It means building analytics and social feedback into the app itself. It means putting customer context and social networking and predictive analytics at the core of the engagement.

So designing for mobile first means way more than HTML5 versus native apps. It's more about designing the business for mobile service. And it's hard to do, but it's worth it. Need proof? USAA saw its mobile transaction volume soar from a projected 20 million per month to an actual 120 million per month because of its success in serving customers on their smartphones with mobile check deposits and other banking services. That's goodness. See the AA mobile app below for a simple example of mobile engagement. I rarely use www.aa.com any more.

Lastly, what applies to customer mobile engagement applies to partner engagement -- helping business customers and partners take the next most likely action in a sales meeting as Trane does or in a service call as GE and Caterpillar do. And it applies to employee engagement, making employees take action and be productive and successful anywhere at any time on any device as Box and Cisco WebEx and Evernote do.

What's your mobile engagement strategy?

 Figure 1 - 3 American Airlines iPhone App With Next Most Likely Action Buttons




mobile first

"Mobile First" means designing an online experience for mobile before designing it for the desktop Web—or any other device. The guy who coined the term "luke Wroblewski" in my view, he meant a mobile first approach not that we should just be making apps. Great info on the blog post


Thanks, Adam, for the information about Luke. (www.linkedin.com/in/lukew) Looks very interesting.


Sure, also he has a book http://www.abookapart.com/products/mobile-first its a quick read.

Transacting vs processing

If your application/solution/target is focused on transacting and communicating, you should think mobile. If it is processing intensive it should be PC first but with strong mobile linkages for select features (review, edit, update, etc...). One thing missing on the mobile front is the ability to update and create on the desktop. There are many things I can do faster in a more centralized way on the latter than the former. So I think mobile first is conditional and can be expanded depending on how consumption evolves. For 20 years I've maintained mobile is an enabler and real-time, 7x24 extension of fixed. Not a substitute.

Couldn't agree more, but . . .

Absolutely true, Michael. I'm not suggesting that business apps all go mobile first. I am saying the customer, most partner, and many employee engagements should begin with mobile (smartphone or tablet) because of the convenience factor. In consumer mobile, we have dozens of examples where mobile success has forced a redesign of the Web experience.

But for transactional or productivity apps, where the gating factors are keystroke capture, screen size, or compute power, mobile is just a companion device.

That said, SAP will be much more embedded in the daily work of employees if it were surfaced on smartphones and tablets (or computers) surrounded by content in a task-oriented way!

True mobility means more than just Apps


I agree with your overall message. Great mobile customer service is a differentiator today, and will be even more so tomorrow.
But I feel reducing mobile solutions to mobile apps alone is reaching too short. There are customers out there that are mobile and carry a cell phone around, but one that is not smart - but one that can STILL put great mobile customer service in the users' hands, or in their ears. Why not use 2-way SMS as another mobile channel, or IVR? Basically: companies should provide mobile customer (self-)service on ALL mobile channels, including mobile Web, apps, SMS, IVR, and even social networks like Twitter.

What if you know you will be driving to the airport for the next 2 hours. A mobile app alerting you about a flight change won't help you much - you can't (well, shouldn't...) take your eyes off the street! What you want in that case is turn on "driving" mode in the app before starting your ride, so that IF an alert needs to be communicated, you will get an outbound phone call instead, announcing the change and allowing you to rebook, all via voice recognition.

And if you have an older feature phone, use SMS as a 2-way, interactive dialog medium to basically provide the same self-service options that are available with the app. Or use SMS for quick and easy communication to confirm a gate change, remind a user for a payment with an option to switch to mobile Web to make it, or remind a patient for a doctor's appointment or prescription, with the option to reschedule - over SMS, IVR, or App......

THAT's what I'd call true mobile. Or "Unified Self-Service".

unified mobile service anyway ;-)

Tobias, I agree with your point entirely (though I'm pushing the notion that notifications support service and not just self-service). That these devices can receive SMS or notifications, have voice interfaces, and carry rich apps is what makes them so powerful.

It's why mobile will have a bigger impact on service than the Web alone could do.

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