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Mobile-First vs. Responsive Design: Pros, Cons, and Best Practices

Mobile-First vs. Responsive Design: Pros, Cons, and Best Practices

It’s 2020 and 3.5 billion people worldwide walk around with a smartphone in their pocket. As of October 2020, 48.88% of worldwide internet usage is on a mobile device. In the graph below, you can see that mobile usage has been on the rise and surpassed desktop usage at the end of 2016. In other words, the internet has gone mobile with no sign of turning back.

Worldwide Market Share per Screen Device - October 2020







It’s no surprise, then, that mobile-first and responsive design have become hot topics among web designers, digital agencies, and tech-forward companies. However, despite popular usage,  these terms are not synonymous. Responsive design and mobile-first design are two entirely different design strategies.

Is one approach better than the other? Is there a right and wrong approach? The short answer is no. But let’s dive in and discuss the nuances of each.

By the end of this article, you will learn:

  • The difference between mobile-first design and responsive design 
  • The pros and cons of each design strategy 
  • Best practices for each design strategy
  • How to choose the best design strategy for your specific needs

Mobile-First Design vs. Responsive Design

To start, let’s define these two terms.

Mobile-first design is a strategy that starts the design process from the smallest screen size — mobile. Not only does this ensure that the website is 100% optimized for mobile, but it also provides a better experience for users interacting with the website on their mobile devices. Once the mobile sketch or prototype is complete, you move on to the desktop design.

depicition of mobile-first design

Responsive design is a strategy that starts the design process from the largest screen size —  a desktop — while keeping in mind what the site will look like on various screen sizes. Responsive design uses CSS to scale down the components of a site as the screen size gets smaller. Typically, when a responsive design strategy is employed, a separate design for mobile devices is not created.

depiction of responsive design

Aside from the design process, the main difference between mobile-first and responsive design is how the website’s components are structured. Because mobile-first design is 100% optimized for mobile screens, the overall site layout and how users interact with components may be different on a mobile device than on desktop. With responsive design, the website layout and components will typically stay the same but will scale down for smaller screen sizes.

Best Practices

Depending on which design strategy you decide to implement, there are a few best practices to keep in mind:

Mobile-First Design

  • Keep the user in mind - The whole point of mobile-first design is creating a great experience for the mobile device’s end-user. As you are designing, it’s important to think about where, when, and how users will interact with the site from their mobile devices.
  • Make it easy to navigate - Think about ways to make the site easier to interact with and navigate. For example, instead of putting the entire navigation behind a hamburger icon (i.e., those 3 little lines you typically see at the top of a website which open the main menu), you can pull out the top 3-4 actions users will need to take and put them in a fixed toolbar at the bottom of the screen for quicker, easier access.
  • Keep it simple - There’s not a whole lot of real estate to work with on a mobile screen. Instead of trying to add additional visuals or extra components in an effort to “jazz up” the design, keep it simple and clean so it doesn’t overwhelm the user.

Responsive Design

  • Keep mobile in mind - Since the desktop design is the main focus, it’s important to think about how each component will translate to a mobile device. If you neglect mobile during the design process, the user experience will suffer and you’ll likely have to put in extra work after the fact to be sure the site is mobile-friendly.
  • Use CSS media queries wisely - Make sure you have default CSS media queries set up to save time on responsive design styling. However, this doesn’t mean you should just blindly rely on the default styling. You should still go through each page during development to ensure that all components are scaling down properly, and that the overall functionality will provide a good experience for mobile users.
  • Optimize for mobile - Even though the site might not be 100% optimized for mobile, it’s still imperative to optimize it the best you can. For example, make sure users don’t have to zoom in or scroll horizontally to fill out a form or view information.

Choosing the Right Design Strategy

While the goal may be to pick a strategy and stick with it, it’s not always that simple. All websites have unique user types, functionality needs, and goals. While there is some overlap between the two strategies, each has its own pros and cons.

comparison of Mobile-First Design and Responsive Design

If you’re still not quite sure which design strategy makes the most sense for you, below are some examples of when to use each strategy depending on your project needs:

Go with responsive design if:

  • Most of the website visitors use desktop devices (you should have data to back this up!)
  • The users will need to complete a complex process or a series of daily tasks that they will likely do on a desktop or laptop
  • The website is mainly copy-driven and informational with minimal functionality

Go with mobile-first design if:

  • Users are visiting the website on the go
  • The users need quick and easy access to specific functionality on the site
  • You want the look and feel of a mobile app without the cost to build an app

As you can see, there really is no right or wrong design strategy. Both mobile-first and responsive design have pros and cons. Whether you are trying to determine which strategy makes the most sense to incorporate in your design process or how to explain the difference to your clients, hopefully this information gives you the confidence to figure out which web design approach is best for your needs.

If you still have questions, feel free to send us a message! We’re happy to chat with you.