When it comes to building websites, people often create sites for desktops and laptops first, while mobile designs become a secondary project — one that’s somehow less valuable than the desktop site itself.

For a long time, this model made sense. The newest, most exciting website technologies catered to desktop users while mobile sites featured cruder — but still useful — models of what desktop sites had to offer. Even five or six years ago, people weren’t using mobile devices at nearly the rate they do now. However, with technological advances and the rise in the use of tablets and smartphones — there are more than a billion mobile web users worldwide — taking a laptop-first, mobile-second approach might not be such a great idea.

With a quarter of mobile web users in the United States being mobile-only, making a mobile-first approach your second priority could mean you’re missing out on an opportunity to interact with potential clients.

But what is mobile first design and why does it matter for your law firm? Below, I’ll outline the changes that have made mobile sites a top priority, as well as why mobile-first design is an approach you may want to consider, too.

The Origins of Mobile-First Design

If we’re going to really understand why mobile-first design is the way of the future, then we need to understand the technology and design principles that led up to this change in thinking.

Mobile-first design is obviously a relatively new tech development and probably seems counterintuitive to some. So how did we get here in the first place?

Graceful Degradation: The Top-Down Approach

Years ago, when designers had to consider multiple browsers for web access, they took the top-down approach to satisfy the requirements of web surfers: they aimed to meet the needs of those using various browsers and platforms that took advantage of newer technology, then scaled their design backward to offer constrained functionality to users with more primitive systems. This gave website creators the ability make full use of technological bells and whistles for those who had the ability to see them — programming languages such as JavaScript, for example — while still providing content access to users who had yet to make an upgrade.

That’s to say their thinking, more or less, was this:

The more unsophisticated the browser or platform, the fewer bells and whistles this website will have. But it’ll work, no matter where you read it from.

This concept is what’s known as “graceful degradation.” Graceful degradation relies on the idea that, if one can’t access programs that heighten website design to the fullest (JavaScript, Flash), they can, at the very least, access and interact with the basic content.

Graceful degradation still came into play when people started using mobile phones to browse the web.

Think back to the cell phone you had when you were first able to access the internet by phone — do you remember how different websites looked when you viewed them from that little screen? You might remember that some sites seemed “plainer.” Maybe they didn’t have fancy fonts or images, or they were a replica of the desktop site that left you doing lots of resizing and scrolling to get where you wanted to go. However, you could still click on links, read content and fill out forms.

Today, if you pull your phone out of your pocket and visit a website, you’re more likely to see a site designed precisely for your mobile device.

Progressive Enhancement: The Bottom-Up Approach

It was graceful degradation in concert with recent technological progress and mobile sales that led to a shift in thinking about design direction for websites. This concept is what we call “progressive enhancement.”

Progressive enhancement takes a calculated design switch that puts mobile projects at the head of the line, creating a site that provides a top-notch experience for mobile users first. From there, they scale the site forward for use in regular browsers.

This approach yields a better product altogether by aiming to impress your users starting at the smallest scale. A designer might have more restrictions on what they can do, but having that knowledge to begin with puts designers in a position to create a better product–that is, better looking and better functioning– despite having larger constraints. As designers work toward the desktop site, they end up enhancing what’s already a great site to begin with at the mobile level.

Now that we understand how the concept of mobile-first design came about, we can talk about three reasons why mobile-first design matters to your law firm’s website.

3 Reasons Why Mobile-First Matters For Your Law Firm

Taking a mobile-first approach means that you’ll create a better site at every level, from the bottom up. But there are three other good reasons that, if you haven’t already, you should consider changing your design strategy.

People are using mobile devices. A lot. More than any other time in history, in fact. A recent study confirms that in the United States, desktop-based web surfing comprises only 40 percent of people’s digital media consumption time. The other 60 percent of their time is being put toward mobile web apps and mobile web surfing. This study lists Google Search as the fourth most popular web app used by digital media consumers. If this is the method that people are using to search for your law firm, there’s a good chance they’ll come upon your mobile site, first.

A step in the right direction. Surely, there are those of you who are wondering the following:

If, in either graceful degradation or progressive enhancement, you end up providing material for desktop or mobile sites, does it really matter which direction you work in?

Absolutely. When people start working on a desktop site first, they immediately try to take advantage of all the bells and whistles. Who would blame them? One would expect designers to use the tools at their disposal to teh fullest extent. Designers then have a desktop site looks great and functions well, but doesn’t scale down well to the mobile site.

Taking the graceful degradation approach to website building leaves you with a mobile product that feels less like a reasonable facsimile and more like a website on which someone did a lazy, slapdash job at the last minute. You might still be able to access a lot of the content, but the experience is lost. That, in conjunction with what I’ve noted above — the fact that so many people use mobile devices to surf the web — means it’s possible the first site that users see is your mobile configuration (rather than the desktop site) when they visit your law firm on the web. If the site looks hastily crafted or frustrates its users, potential clients may be less likely to want to engage with your law firm or its website content. Failure to adapt to how consumers are utilizing mobile devices can mean lost business for your law firm.

There’s no excuse for a non-responsive website. Responsive website design used to be a trend that was gaining popularity — but as technology develops alongside the demands of users, most websites are now responsive. Therefore, there’s no excuse to provide users with one that isn’t. Responsive website design might as well be a close cousin of progressive enhancement. Responsive design is centered around creating an optimal user experience for those who visit your website from any browser, platform or device — and part of that optimized experience is the functionality and aesthetics of the website itself. As a result, having a website that uses responsive design means utilizing progressive enhancement, which means you’ll benefit from taking a mobile-first approach.

With how rapidly things can become outdated, sometimes it’s not a good idea to adopt a trend before you know it’s here to stay. However, the increasing use of mobile devices alongside user demand for high quality, responsive websites means there’s a good chance that integrating concepts like mobile-first websites into your design strategy is a smart choice for your law firm.