Design for a Target Experience First

a post on Process

07/06/2011 · Penarth, Wales · The construction of a site or app should be dictated by the content and the goals of the operators. Luke Wroblewski and others have popularized the idea of “Mobile First”, which suggests that the process of designing an experience for mobile screens at the onset is ideal, as it constrains us to focus on only what is important. But designing “Mobile First” is as arbitrary as designing “Desktop First”. While I applaud the spirit of the concept, we may be diving headlong into another catchphrase that will need unlearning later.

I know that “Mobile First” is merely a guide to help us think small and light, but I wasn’t aware that this had ever changed for us web designers. We should always be looking to pare things down to the essentials. Minimalism, though, is not our sole purpose in design. As Charles Eames once said:

“Design is a plan for arranging elements in such a way as best to accomplish a particular purpose.”

In Development, a Caveat

For front-end development, I whole heartedly agree with the “320 and Up” philosophy of building and loading page assets up from the smallest screen experience. I have tried this in building a few responsive designs and it really feels like the best way to build bandwidth-responsible CSS. Development ideology, however, should inform – not dictate – design process.

In responsive web development, though, we do find a precedent for a “Target First” method. Ethan Marcotte, in Responsive Web Design, uses target widths to anchor his percentage calculations for responsive measurements. In a similar way, a “Target First” design approach sets a target experience to anchor our decisions of what should be added or subtracted, diminished or emphasized in each screen context.

Finding Your Target

There are goals for sites that reach beyond simple readability, where a lack of features can actually diminish the experience. I am working on such a project now. Our approach has been to peruse the research and tailor an optimal experience for the most likely user scenarios. Working out from there, we judicially edit and hone for each media query.


If you’ve done the proper research up front, you should be able to define a target experience. Here are some example scenarios:

  • A media rich site, where showing various types supporting content is integral, might be best designed for wider screens first.
  • An article-centric site that gets most of its traffic by deep links might be best designed mobile up.
  • An application that is data driven, showing multiple formats of analysis and their relationships (think of a Bloomberg screen).

Every Screen, All the Time?

We should, really, think of every experience at every part of the project. Right now, tools are just beginning to roll out to help us think across devices and screen sizes, at least at the front-end development level. But even with such tools, there will always be a need to choose a place to start.

By beginning your design focused on a target experience, your first steps will be anchored to where you have the most research, most users, and most needs.

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