Mobile first -- the principle of approaching digital design from mobile form factors first, then accommodating larger form factors afterwards -- is a buzz term. It turns on its head the old status quo of designing for desktops primarily, with mobile as an afterthought. The term trips glibly off tongues everywhere now, but don’t scoff at its current trendiness. You might miss the fact that it’s a god-send to content strategists and UX designers.
Mobile is becoming -- has become -- the main way users access many sites and online services. For some staggering stats, check out http://www.lukew.com/ff/entry.asp?1506 . Phone screens, with their limited space and distinctive interaction patterns, impose a strict discipline on content strategy and information architecture. These constraints force companies to really focus on figuring out the most important message they want to convey and the most important action they want users to take.
You might think companies would be clear about these priorities. You’d be wrong. Theoretically, they’re clear, but in practice, with the luxurious expanse of desktop-monitor-size web sites, they often fill it with clutter. They say they want to focus on their key message, but when powerful execs in an array of departments chime in to say they want their little piece of the web-site pie too, the company avoids making the hard decisions and says yes to every exec (and web-savvy execs would know how to cherry-pick user data to bolster their case). What the frustrated content strategist or UX designer ends up with is like a Capybara Sunset.
With the small confines and distinct interactions of phones, there’s no space for such content, use case and interaction fuzziness. Companies really need to understand what their users want and focus like a laser on those desires. It’s “content first” -- the right content for the right situation.
Once that hard decision is made, designing for a larger form factor is easier for the simple reason that priorities have been clearly expressed and there are fewer excuses to hide behind in order to squeeze inessential content into a larger web page.
And without the distractions of the inessential, content strategists and UX designers can devote their attention to really exploiting each platform’s functionality to deliver more engaging experiences. For some, mobile first is old news, they're now talking about "platform first".
Product strategist, designer and entrepreneur Luke Wroblewski extols these virtues in his slim and superb book, Mobile First http://www.abookapart.com/products/mobile-first It’s a great read. Content strategists and UX designers everywhere, pause and give thanks to the discipline of small spaces.