I recently took part in a branch.com discussion concerning the topic of “What does mobile first mean to you?” It was started by Cecelia Bittner, organizer of @fastcompany’s #FCMobilize series.

From the discussion title alone, I expected it to be a designer-heavy discussion with little variation in what ‘mobile first’ meant. Maybe there’d be some differing opinions on the first steps to a mobile first approach, but I didn’t anticipate much more than that. My reasoning here is that mobile first is a term that’s been utilized in the design and web development community for a few years now and there isn’t that much discrepancy in its meaning.

To those not from the web design and development community…

A mobile first approach consists of designing content and user interface elements for small screens (mobile devices) first. Then, progressively expanding on those design patterns while adding embellishments to the content, design and layout as the design moves to larger and larger screen sizes.

There will be variations to the wording in that description based on who you talk to but overall that’s pretty close to the original definition of mobile first.

With that in mind, I was surprised that wasn’t the first answer out of the gate. Instead, the early points of view came from the consumers’ point of view. Their comments mostly revolving around expressing their likes and dislikes of mobile apps vs. mobile websites. They didn’t really provide an answer of what ‘mobile first’ meant to them, but gave interesting insight into how they view different mobile experiences.

Some preferred mobile optimized websites over native apps. A main reason being that visiting links via email and Twitter open the content in a browser or in a web view within the app they were using, so they want the experience of the link they’re visiting to be a similar, great, mobile web experience. Others expressed their preference for native apps and how they expect a better experience out of a native app than a website.

As more people got involved in the discussion, it became clear that this wasn’t going to be the typical mobile first discussion I was used to hearing. Specifically when Pam Negoro expressed that mobile first means: “creating the optimal mobile content [and] UI experience based upon the consumers needs…at that specific moment…” and Paul Ruppert followed with “It depends…apps ‘adding value’ MUST translate into driving revenue for an enterprise…” I realized that these people weren’t talking about mobile first. At least not in the way I would expect them to be. Instead, their conversation was veering into the realm of general user experience, mobile application brand strategies and project ROI.

It was at this point that I became involved and gave my version of the standard design/developer definition of what mobile first means, along with trying to express my opinion on why a native app strategy (though not worded that way) isn’t necessarily the best route to go. Or rather, I tried to say all of that in a the allotted character limit.

I replied with:

To me, ‘mobile first’ really means content & UI that logically adapts to all screen sizes. Why should someone have to download a separate app(s) to get an optimized version of a website’s content? The amount of work that goes into creating an app for this purpose could instead be spent on optimizing content and creating a responsive website that works on all screen sizes.

I mean, how does creating a mobile app even solve the problem of the numerous types of mobile devices out there? Mobile is often associated with Apple & Android phones and tablets. But laptops & netbooks are mobile too, with various screen sizes. There’s also gaming devices like the 3DS & Vita. Is one expected to make a ‘mobile app’ for each device? That’d be silly.”

Even after my first sentence I also got caught up in talking mobile strategy.

The conversation goes on with people coming in and out to expand on their stances and rebuttal other people’s posts. All done in a very pleasant way, I may add. But aside from me trying to clarify my initial definition of mobile first, by giving insight to my professional background and further reasoning, no one really got back to the topic of “what does mobile first mean to you”. It became a full blown ‘mobile strategy’ and ‘consumer expectations of mobile experiences’ discussion. And I’m glad it stayed that way.

I enjoyed reading what people wanted, or didn’t want, in their mobile apps and websites. It’s fascinating learning what people think about mobile technology and just how much the general public understands the capabilities and limitations native apps and HTML5 websites/web apps have. I find it can be rare to get strong but thoughtful feedback on mobile UX. By that I mean the feedback I typically see is from irate customers or clients that want their logo to be bigger. Even when I’ve seen feedback from happy customers, it’s usually just that they’re ‘happy’ with the product, and rarely little more than that.

I think it’d be wonderful to see discussions like this one with more involvement from the design and development community, and continued engagement from those totally outside of that group. It’d be great to provide a medium for the end consumers of brands to thoughtfully voice their opinions on technical topics while giving those who create these interfaces and experiences a means to learn from their opinions. While doing so, also providing a forum to (hopefully) educate people on what some of these terms like mobile first and responsive design mean. Or at least, what we think they mean.

Granted, we could also just send them to lmgtfy.com, but that doesn’t really open up a meaningful conversation, does it?