Mobile apps have never looked so good

I love the web. I built my first web page in college in 1995. I remember how magical hotmail was when it came out. I was used to using a green screen vax terminal to check email. It was the first time I realized that the web could actually be used for something useful. The ease of deployment, the simplicity of HTML, it all came together for me in an aha moment with mosaic. I never have looked back, even when I’ve take little hiatuses from technology, something keeps drawing me back to the web.

The Rise of Mobile Apps

In 2010 Wired Magazine published a controversial article called “The Web Is Dead, Long Live the Internet“. The article shows a graph of the trend of Internet traffic moving away from the web to mechanisms like peer to peer. About the same time as the article was written, it seemed like the Apple and Google App Stores had reached a critical mass of apps and people buying them. These apps get loaded locally on the user’s device and transfer data via Internet protocol (IP) and most do not technically use the web.  While the article was written for shock factor mostly, there is something very true the author touched on, that the way we access information is increasingly happening on non-PC devices.

Just two years ago, we spent more time consuming information through a web browser than on a mobile device.  Venture Beat reports that as of December 2012, we now spend more time per day on our mobile device at 127 minutes on average versus 70 minutes on the web.  This spike in usage has caused many companies to rethink how they present information to their users leading to a new strategy called “mobile first”.

Mobile First Design

Mobile first design is simply starting with the design of how mobile users will interact with information.  This is not the traditional approach to web design, but the benefits of these are many.  Primarily it forces designers to focus on what the most important tasks of users are.  You just can’t fit everything on a small screen, so you have to prioritize.  The benefit of this strategy is substantial in usability because of simplicity, ease of use and speed.

A number of years ago, I started realizing that I would grab for my phone first for certain tasks like news consumption, looking up flights or making hotel reservations.  I even have apps like Things that I use on my phone or pad that don’t even have a web version of their app.   These apps are fast and easy to use, and I just love the interface.  There is something so freeing to not be making so many decisions about what to look at.

I’m not recommending only building mobile websites or even apps.  Companies that have adopted this strategy have done so at their peril.  Even the mobile app Instagram that was bought by Facebook for over $1 billion now has a web app .  Clearly though, we can’t ignore mobile, and your website or webapp may benefit from the exercise of designing for mobile first.  Even now as I write this article on my iPad, I’m enjoying the simplicity of a mobile app.

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