Insights into Squirro development (and sneak-peaks!): Mobile first

March 14, 2012

A lot of buzzwords are floating around these days. One of these is about a concept that rethinks the approach of how web applications should be developed. It’s called “Mobile first” and has been made popular by Luke Wroblewski and the correspondent book. Our upcoming product Squirro will be a great user experience on smartphones, tablets and computers – all thanks to Luke’s concept. But what is “Mobile first” about?

It’s about changing the whole approach of web application development. Instead of building a fully fletched web platform and from that deviate the mobile client – just do it the other way around! By reversing the order of things are developed, Luke very much believes that the shortcomings of most of today’s mobile applications can be eliminated. Most of his recommendations about web application development come from poor mobile experience and the rise of mobile devices. Let’s go a little more into detail. Two reasons for his approach deserve attention:

Smartphones are taking over the world
Since Apple launched the iPhone back in 2007, hundreds if not thousands of similar gadgets have floated the mobile market. Rather sooner than later there will be more smartphones than classical mobiles and already today, they account for a substantial part of overall web traffic generated. However, oftentimes they lack broadband Internet connection and thus downloading a web page that has not been optimised for mobile usage is going to take too long and ends up generating unnecessary bandwidth consumption. With mobile first, you need to really take care of performance. If it’s going to run on a mobile phone, it will certainly rocket on a more capable computer. One core concept to get around that is called “Responsive Web Design”. It’s awesome. And we’re going to dig into it in a later post.

Focus on what matters
By design, smartphones feature much smaller screens than our computers. Even though some smartphones already display as many pixels as many notebooks do, they still get displayed on a 4-inch screen. In conclusion: space is scarce. You’ve just got these 4-inch to display the most critical functions of your application. If you’d designed your web application for desktop usage first, you’d most likely end up in a hassle to arrange buttons, menus and screens. With mobile first, that’s unlikely to happen. Instead, it forces you to abstract and focus on what really matters. That way, your web application stays slim while still being fully capable on a mobile device.

Mobile first @ Squirro
As to Squirro, we consequently go that way. The focus on the development of the mobile design first was a tough task. Role models exist, yet we had to make up a lot of ground ourselves since the type of knowledge curation application we’re building simply doesn’t exist so far. It felt a little like coaxing a sculpture out of a stone. Actually many stones: We went through a process of creating numerous design proposals, iterating, withdrawing, starting over again and refining. Example: how do you include meaningful and easy to apply filters to a long reading list on a mobile device without cluttering the reading list with drop downs, menu options, etc.?

While the product has not yet been finished, we’d love to give you some very small sneak-peaks of the mobile design status quo:

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