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Become a Mobile-First Company Before It's Too Late, Here's How

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Some of us remember the late nineties, when upgrading technology for "Y2K compliance" was a question of survival. Companies were concerned that they would be out of business if they didn't upgrade their technology and business processes. This year, mobile is becoming mainstream and companies urgently need to craft and implement a "mobile-first" strategy. Here is a step-by-step methodology to do so.

Most industries need to become mobile-first in 2014. The clock is ticking.

Silicon Valley's innovators have been riding the mobile wave for the past few years, but in 2014, mobile is mainstream:

  • Across geographies, with IDC research firm reporting that one billion smartphones shipped worldwide in 2013,
  • Across demographics, with Nielsen sharing that half of Americans 55 or older own a smartphone, and
  • Across industries, with social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, or Yelp counting 60-80 percent mobile users, closely followed by e-commerce platforms like Amazon which recently reported that half of sales are mobile.

Knowing that people typically change phone every 18 months and that 85 percent of Americans buying new phones choose smartphones, it's easy to conclude that becoming mobile-first in 2014 is both important and urgent. And considering that a growing portion of the population is mobile-only (not just first) it could be too late to wait until 2015.

It has been 15 year since the last major technology overhaul of Y2K compliance, which is a long enough cycle in most industries for new trends to have emerged, so "mobile-first" projects are also often opportunities to reset industry business processes and implement best practices.

Create a mobile-first vision by balancing new constraints. Design is critical.

Becoming a mobile-first company means adapting to a new set of constraints, some expanding, some limiting.

Expanding constrains enables new paradigms that weren't possible before mobile.

Mobile devices are location-aware, which is particularly relevant to industries serving users on-the-go such as transportation. Mobile apps can also access people's address book, which is disrupting industries like telecommunications by enabling free, real-time communication. And the ability to send push notifications instantly to a phone opens up many opportunities across industries, including e.g. finance, airlines, etc.

Limiting constraints relate to the nature of the mobile interface.

Unlike desktop adoption which was driven by mainframes and business process optimization, mobile adoption is a consumer trend. Mobile phones are personal devices and people increasingly opt to use them as work tools (a trend known as BYOD, for Bring Your Own Device,) so expectations in terms of user experience are high. As a result, the role of designers has become increasingly critical in defining a mobile strategy and mobile design best practices such as keeping users focused on one thing at a time, using touch extensively, and optimizing performance are paramount. Hiring top design talent is critical.

The restricted screen size also forces drastic prioritization and deep understanding of a user's context. Companies need to agree across functions on their Minimum Viable Product (MVP) which is the set of features they cannot launch without, as opposed to a long wish list. Defining this MVP is the first step, turning it into a reality is even more critical and here, execution is key.

Delivering a mobile-first offering. Metric, optimization, scaling.

The success of a mobile-first project often hinges on how it is rolled out. Following this 3-step methodology will limit the risk of missing goals and/or deadlines.

Firstly, take the time to define and baseline the project's success metric.

Often, the choice is between downloads and revenue.

  • Consumer businesses tend to focus on downloads and active users because reaching critical mass enables monetization. As a result, the mobile user acquisition game has become very competitive and acquiring users cheaply is probably the single biggest challenge in today's mobile world. Mobile marketing agencies have emerged to help companies optimize the mix of app store marketing, SEO, PR, and distribution partnerships.
  • B2B companies tend to prioritize revenue and engagement. There are lots of opportunities right now for notifications marketing to drive engagement by leveraging consumer data behind the firewalls and using product analytics solutions to deliver the right information at the right time. That said, the transition to mobile-first in B2B presents additional challenges due to lack of standards. Implementing an integrated, cloud-based IT solution is often a pre-requisite.

Next, getting a mobile-first offering out in the hands of users requires a lot of optimization.

On native platforms, optimization cycle take weeks because each new release needs to be approved before it is published to the app store. One way to speed up optimization is to use responsive technology, a fancy name for web technology that works across mobile and desktop, as a test platform. While native apps deliver a superior user experience, nothing so far has replaced the ability that the web offers to make changes on the fly to a product, which on mobile reduces time to market from week to minutes.

Last, remember that a fancy iPhone mobile app is only one piece of the puzzle.

Depending on what devices your users have, you may need to port your app to other platforms, or develop an offering based on SMS.

Becoming mobile-first is about enabling services that are only possible in a mobile world, a pretty exciting challenge across industries, and an opportunity to reset the playing field in your industry.

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