9 ways to become ‘mobile first’

While social media gets lots of the attention, the explosion in smartphones and tablets is reinventing the way we consume and interact with content.  We’ve seen it firsthand here at Breaking News: traffic from devices surpassed desktop traffic back in January, doubled it in June and the gap continues to grow.

We occasionally hear the term “mobile first” in journalism circles, but it rarely comes with an explanation.  Most people intuitively know that a “mobile first” company should tailor its products to devices first, desktop second.  But what does that really mean?  Here are a few things we’re learning here at Breaking News:

1. “Mobile first” is a mindset

Mobile is a new medium, not just a smaller screen size. Have you ever noticed that most people visualize new product ideas in context of the desktop web, and mobile just comes along for the ride?  New ideas are often whiteboarded as standard web pages, but devices are fundamentally different in visual language, user interaction and capabilities.  Like Instagram and Path — both of which have minimalist web presences — the key is to start envisioning a product optimized for devices, and work backwards to the desktop web.  (Like many new mobile startups, you may decide that the desktop website is merely a gateway to a mobile experience.)  This shift isn’t easy, and that’s why many mobile news experiences behave like a simplified desktop website.

2. Aim to solve problems

The most successful apps and web experiences leverage the unique form and features of devices to solve problems for people.  Here at Breaking News, we’ve witnessed the growing explosion of real-time content both from news organizations and “accidental journalists.”  That can be confusing to navigate, especially for non-journalists wielding a device.  We boil it down to a reliable, real-time feed that focuses on just what’s new, linking straight to the source while sifting out duplicate information and unconfirmed reporting.  For us, the stream is the story – which is a mobile-friendly form – with push alerts as a feature.

3. Your users can make or break your product

By virtue of their ratings in app marketplaces, users can make or break your product in ways never before seen in media. Imagine a world where users had to click past comments from others about your web site before they ever saw your home page. That’s how people discover and download mobile apps. Your star rating means more than all the consumer marketing in the world. Heed what they have to say carefully. 

4. Live in the devices world

So how do you start thinking in devices?  Like anything, it helps to immerse yourself.  Load up on iOS and Android (and Windows 8 soon) devices, and shift a big chunk of your desktop behavior — even when you’re sitting at your desk — to your phones and tablets.  Download and play with every cool new app (not just news apps!) you can find.  Use Google’s mobile search and visit various sites, taking note of how they’re truly mobile-friendly or just a dumbed-down site.  And if you have the luxury, embed yourself with mobile developer/designers to soak up as much as you can.  You don’t need to learn how to code in Objective-C, but you’ll pick up on the uniqueness of user interaction, the challenges of optimizing for multiple device types and the release-based approach to application development.

5. Dig into the metrics

People use devices in distinct ways compared to the desktop.  For example, Breaking News’ mobile traffic jumps 15-20% on the weekends.  By digging into your mobile metrics, you can learn about consumption patterns and the true momentum of your products.  How many active users do you have compared to total downloads?  Is that number increasing or decreasing?  What are your most popular mobile stories?  How do people use tablets vs. phones at different times of the day?  How do users respond to push alerts? There’s a tremendous volume of data available which will inform how you approach product development.

6. Recalibrate goals around mobile

Most newsrooms measure their digital performance in desktop and social metrics, but for a truly “mobile first” approach, goals should reflect performance on devices. That means a fundamental shift in how we gauge the success of a content brand and the people behind it.  It also impacts how we highlight successes and challenges across editorial and development teams (for example, whenever we talk about how our audience spiked for a big story, we begin with our mobile performance). This is a “gut check” moment of becoming a mobile first team.  Is it merely a statement or a way of life?

7. Take advantage of mobile tools

Just like social media has triggered an avalanche of new tools, there’s a new crop of mobile companies offering useful tools for user tracking, SEO, A/B testing, advertising optimization and more. (In fact, Twitter just bought Clutch.io, an iOS A/B testing company).  I’m often amazed at how little press these startups attract compared to their social media counterparts.  But a little research does wonders.

8. Experiment and fail (quickly)

This has become a bit of a cliché, but a fast-failure approach to mobile product development is both a necessity and a challenge.  The mobile space is moving so quickly, a nimble approach is key.  However, mobile application development is a more time-consuming process with higher stakes: for example, we once submitted an app that turned out to have an advertising glitch, but the Apple approval process requires several days to roll out a fix.  That’s why app development teams invest more time in testing, and mobile-first companies often iterate on a mobile web version first, grafting the best features into subsequent app releases.

9. Recognize that mobile is hard and costly

App development isn’t easy, and you need an ample budget and lots of patience. You can argue all you want that native apps, closed marketplaces and platform fragmentation are not sustainable. Tell that to your users and expect a serenade on the world’s smallest violin.  Good mobile developers are hard to find, expensive to hire and demanding to keep.  HTML5 holds a lot of promise for the future, but recognize that your users have choices.  If your mobile products are slow, clunky and more focused on being “scalable” than “delightful,” you have an uphill battle.

The mobile product revolution has just begun. Believe in your ideas, but recognize that you (along with everyone else) are only beginning to understand the potential and possibilities.  We’re still learning here at Breaking News, and we invite your feedback. Is your news organization trying to move toward being mobile first? What has worked well for you?

By Cory Bergman (corybe on Tumblr and @corybe) and Andrew Locke