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So I've been trying to find a legitimate answer to this question for a couple days. I read an interview in Awwwards recent publication Trends Web and Mobile 2013 with the following answer in regards to what to focus on in 2013:

HTML/CSS/JS, mobile-first responsive design, WordPress, ExpressionEngine/otherCMS’s.

So what does mobile-first mean?

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It should be noted in addition to the other answers here that this idea came from a book called "Mobile First" by Luke Wroblewski. It's part of the Book Apart series. –  UXAndrew Feb 23 '13 at 11:23

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Mobile first means that you start your design process off by designing for mobile. Once you have that done, you can easily modify the design for pc.

The main reasoning behind this is that if you voluntarily constrain yourself to mobile, you will be forced to make decisions about what is really important, and what you need to focus on. By doing that, you will make decisions that you would never be forced to make when designing for pc first. The result is almost always a focused, cleaner, and more usable design.

It's really easy to translate a mobile design to a pc, but usually incredibly difficult to translate a pc design to mobile.


A good reference on this topic is Mobile First by Luke Wroblewski.

Some examples of sites that have followed this philosophy:
Clagnut
Bagcheck
Rijksmuseum (Dutch State Museum)

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I couldn't agree more. The first thing I do with new clients is educate them on the importance of this concept. I've found it helps them stay focused on the content, even during the design process :) –  Noah C Feb 23 '13 at 19:51
    
Great answer. Would you have any examples of sites that have used a mobile-first approach? –  ryanSrich Feb 23 '13 at 20:18
    
@ryanSrich I added some examples to my answer. –  JohnGB Feb 23 '13 at 20:47

I'm too lazy to write a more-verbose answer (with examples, references, etc), but the best analogy for mobile-first design I've heard comes from Clarissa Peterson:

Think of it like you're moving. If you're living in a mansion and you have to move into a small apartment, it's really hard to find a place for all of your stuff. If you live in a small apartment first, you learn how to get by with less stuff, and you can then add more stuff when you move into a mansion.

Mobile-first design is living in an apartment first, then moving into larger homes as you go to tablets, desktops, etc.

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The term mobile first was introduced by Luke Wroblewski in 2009, it basically consists in adapting the design process to start by designing the mobile version of an application first and then going upwards (ie. tablet, desktop) rather than the other way around.

Here are some insights from Wroblewski's first blog post on the matter:

  1. Mobile is exploding: Though the Web has been accessible on mobile devices for years, today's smart phones are driving huge use of networked applications and Web content. Building mobile first ensures companies have an experience available to this extremely fast growing user base widely considered to be the next big computing platform.

  2. Mobile forces you to focus: Mobile devices require software development teams to focus on only the most important data and actions in an application. You have to prioritize. So when a team designs mobile first, the end result is an experience focused on the key tasks users want to accomplish without the extraneous detours and general interface debris that litter today's desktop-accessed Web sites.

  3. Mobile extends your capabilities: New mobile application platforms are introducing exciting capabilities that leave many PC-based Web browsers behind. (eg.: GPS, digital compass, multi-touch input, accelerometer, etc). Building mobile first allows teams to utilize this full palette of capabilities to create rich context-aware applications instead of limiting themselves to an increasingly dated set of capabilities.


If you want a nice introduction to the topic, here is his talk at An Event Apart: video and slides.

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It seems like a good concept - particularly given the use of the extra sensor inputs listed in Point 3. –  PhillipW Feb 23 '13 at 12:02

It's bigger than the web design context.

Take Instagram for instance, a service that started off as iOS only. Their site was basically a link to App Store for a long time. Gradually they expanded to more platforms and rolled out more features on their website.

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