Recently, our team at Pegasus One met with representatives from a prospective healthcare client. We’d covered the fundamental approach of user-centered design and agreed on leading with research and strategy. We all seemed to be in agreement until the head of their team suddenly asked a question: “you, you guys design mobile-first, right?”

The problem is, that’s not a simple yes or no question.

The concept of “mobile-first” began as a way to prioritize content and ensure positive, device-agnostic experiences. However, budgetary and scheduling constraints often mean that the result is mobile-only.

But, analytics data from our healthcare clients indicated that the majority of their users are still on desktop. A mobile-first approach would leave many of them with a less than optimal experience.

We’ve concluded that mobile-first is just not specific enough to address true user needs. A truly user-centered design must start with the journeys our users are taking and the flows they will follow to complete their objectives. To provide design that truly takes a user-centered approach, your design must be journey-driven.

What’s Wrong with Mobile-First?

Before the mobile age, designers were still essentially designing for desktops, just desktops with smaller screens. There was just one screen size: 800 pixels. While screen resolutions grew to 1024 and then to 1200 pixels, mobile capabilities were expanding, as well. On the mobile side, things were improving, as well. Screens got larger, with higher resolution. Battery life increased. Wi-fi became ubiquitous. Website users became more likely to visit a site from their mobile phones. However, desktop design just didn’t translate well.

In 2009, Luke Wroblewski introduced mobile-first as a best practice that improved user experience. Karen McGrane expanded on the topic in her 2012 work, Content Strategy for Mobile. These experts found that designing for smaller screens made you prioritize content. This resulted in a better experience for the end user. Additionally, the capabilities of the mobile screen allowed for more opportunities for engaging experiences.

However, this meant a focus on just one great user experience. There were ways for designers to compensate. For instance, graceful degradation was a philosophy that involved designing for a perfect experience on one platform (usually desktop) and then accounting for older browsers and less common devices by ensuring functionality, even if design suffered. Progressive enhancement, by contrast, suggested starting by optimizing for a small (mobile) screen and then enhancing the design as the device or browser got bigger. Neither fostered the best experience across all devices.

And, more importantly: no one intended for mobile-first to be mobile-only.

Here in 2018, we assume that every project needs to be mobile-friendly. Pew Research says that 77% of adults has a smart phone that they use to browse the internet at least some of the time. One-third use their mobile phone more often than a desktop. Mobile-friendly design could cost you your spot in the search engine rankings, as Google began penalizing sites for lack of mobile-friendliness in 2015.

However, the choice isn’t as simple as mobile or desktop. Many users switch devices mid-task. Many others use one device for some functions while they choose a different one for others. While half of all smartphone users download health apps, that also means that half do not.

When we are considering a user journey, we must ask: did the patient get their diagnosis over the phone while at home, where they can access their desktop? Or were they at their doctor’s office searching on their mobile phone?

Discovering the Journey

Journey-first design is built around the process that users are most likely to follow. When design is approached this way, even small budgets are enough to account for the design elements that are needed most.

Our process starts by uncovering the journey itself. A research phase shows us what a user expects, where their pain points are and which devices they are likely to use.

From there, we create user personas and map an ideal journey for each. We find when and where business and persona will communicate and design around these touchpoints.

From Journey to Design

Mobile-sized mock-ups are attractive; stakeholders love the cohesive look. But, as designers, we need to think of function first. Every set of interactions should be considered independently. We need to push for a range of screen sizes that fits a user’s most likely journey. Ask these questions after designing each interaction:

  • Is this designed for the most critical device?
  • What other devices are important?
  • What is the context for this interaction? Where, physically, will my user be?

These questions ensure that every item is designed for optimal user experience and not just slick, good looks.

Toward a Better Marriage with Content

With Journey Driven design, you are not merely fitting content on a page. Instead, designer and content strategist identify goals and work together every step of the way. This big-picture approach means fewer surprises and an easier experience working together.

The Future of User-Centered Design

Want to start with a journey map of your own? Start with these steps:

  • User research. Ask current members how they accomplish their goals.
  • Pain points. What pains your users? Learning can help you brainstorm solutions.
  • Track the steps. As the team moves into wireframes and visual design, remember why each step is started on its designated device.
  • Test the journey. Follow the analytics to see where people drop off and what devices are used. Improve your design until you have an ideal journey.
  • Journey Driven Design is at the core of Pegasus One’s pioneering projects. By choosing JDD over “mobile-first” we can achieve client goals and exceed their expectations.