Many of the companies I work with drive 40% or more of their traffic and new users through mobile – for others that fraction is even greater. At a recent freemium meetup moderated by Raj Singh, Jason Mills of Expensify said this:

Mobile is our largest customer acquisition channel and ironically one of our biggest challenges is actually making mobile users aware of their online experience.

Raj’s Meet Up Notes

Mobile first development strategies work because (i) minimum viable products can be built and tested faster on mobile because feature sets are often smaller (ii)  the distribution channels are better than the web (iii) the barriers to trying an application on a properly designed mobile application are lower than a web app.  Let’s examine each.

Because of the constraints of mobile devices, apps must be single purpose and focused on a primary user flow. Examples: Instagram: take a photo -> make it beautiful with a filter -> post to the social network. Flipboard: select a content source -> flip through the news -> share the news. Expensify: buy something -> take a photo of the receipt -> file an expense report. Often, a mobile app is more appealing than a web app for this reason.

Instagram filters

Better distribution channels: mobile app stores feature and highlight content in a directory structure, a virtual mall for browsers which is a discovery mechanism the web simply doesn’t provide today.

The iTunes store

Integrated identity means faster sign up times. Centralized reviews and comments, which don’t exist for web applications, speed commitment decisions because they help users quickly filter applications.

Path on Google Play

In addition to all those reasons, users prefer and prioritize mobile. 25% of users access Facebook exclusively on mobile, a figure likely to increase with time.


8 thoughts on “Mobile First

  1. Ha, I argued the opposite here, in fact: http://blog.semilshah.com/2012/08/04/mobile-first-not-so-fast/

    I’m not sure it’s easier to test on mobile because of limited features. For iOS, for example, testing on mobile is harder because the cycles are longer, and discovery is a real problem. Yes, the distribution is there, but for most, it’s hard to tap. Unless someone is clearly leveraging one or more sensors that makes a unique mobile product (like Instagram),

    • You’re right the the iOS approval processes introduce 2 weeks of latency. But that’s not the case on Android.

      Do you think the mobile app distribution is harder to tap than SEO/SEM or web distribution? Why? I think the mobile app ecosystem is younger and so less efficient/competitive.

  2. Semil beat me to the punch. Release latency in iOS is a killer to faster iteration. I have also not seen a way to effectively A/B test features at scale on mobile.

    The mobile app ecosystem is younger and less efficient, but search/discovery is horrible and hit driven (driven by marketing outside the ecosystem). For the winners in categories it’s great, but for the 99.9% of apps that are outside of this it’s not good. Many of these apps are not built to be category winners so finding them, other than by name, is hard. The ones that I’ve seen do well have succeeded by marketing through traditional web methods (SEO/SEM).

  3. I would also take the stance of distribution being more difficult on mobile, at least for now. While from a consumer standpoint, app stores with rankings, curation and highlights are great, from a distribution perspective, getting the initial traction to make that list is extremely difficult. If all else fails on browser-based applications, you can always buy your initial traffic (google, FB ads, etc), which will hopefully be complemented by more organic/viral growth later. However, the current mobile ad ecosystem is small and generally expensive. You could always do desktop browser based SEM/social ads, but this introduces a big element of friction into the app downloading process (user clicks ad->reads app company web page->searches on phone’s app store->downloads app).

    • I agree that paid app distribution is currently more challenging on mobile than the web. But I think organic is easier. Over the last 4 years, there have been 25B app store downloads (4 for each person on Earth and about 40 per smart phone user). I doubt there have been anywhere near that many new account signups across web applications. And the app store download figure will only increase with smart phone penetration (now at 50% in the US but less abroad).

      App stores may benefit the top applications disproportionately. Distimo released data indicating the ratio was 10 times the downloads for the top app as the tenth app. But that’s not to say that being in the top 25 or even top 100 in a category drives tiny traffic. Expensify has grown to over a million accounts in a short time at an average rank of 14 or so in the Finance category – one of the smaller categories by downloads.

  4. Hi Tom, I don’t think you can prove the hypothesis here. It’s just what’s most efficient right now. There are specific reasons why “mobile first” makes sense. You’re Instagram, or you’re Foursquare, etc. For the rest, it’s hard to say — it’s easier to find and divert traffic from the web to mobile as an intermediary step in many cases.

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