Adrian Bradley
Adrian Bradley 31 July 2019

‘A Digital Mobile First’ Is A Commendable Approach – Just Don’t Discriminate Against Your Users

Marketers are keen to exploit the massive growth in mobile, but it’s vital for them to test their user base, and understand how it’s evolving, to form the basis for their content strategy. With a mobile-first approach, organisations can easily forget about accessibility and other elements in the front-end build of a website that make it easy to use.

Almost three quarters of the world will access the Internet solely using mobile by 2025, according to the World Advertising Research Center (WARC). Furthermore, last year, for the first time, over half of all website traffic was generated through mobile devices, but admittedly, it varies by territory and sector.

Marketers of course are keen to exploit this trend, but it’s vital for them to test their user base, and understand how it’s evolving, to form the basis for their approach.  Clearly it’s as true to say don’t ignore mobile-first as it is to say don’t only use mobile-first.

And it’s no coincidence that Google  is now using mobile-first indexing for over half the web pages shown in its search results globally — a significant milestone in Google’s move to favour mobile sites over desktop sites.

For brands, the first step in implementing digital-first and mobile-first design principles is investigating how users consume your content. We typically see 65% of users accessing with mobile devices, but more traditional websites and those servicing older demographics are well below 50%. Put another way, the majority of older users are still using desktops, laptops and offline channels.

So while, yes, technically it’s good to have a mobile-first approach, organisations (and agencies!) can easily forget about accessibility and other elements in the front-end build of a website that make it easy to use and navigate. For example, for users with visual impairment or colour blindness, the site must be structured correctly to enable screen readers to read it.  Also users might not want to be pushed into one particular channel that happens to be favoured by the marketing team.

A good example is a theatre and music venue targeting a very broad user base of teens up to 70+ year olds. Taking a digital-first strategy is a commendable plan – but this will alienate some users, they may not be on Twitter or social media - or even email! In addition, I recently discovered a new restaurant had opened near where I live and you can only book a table via Instagram, which excludes me and anyone who is not on Instagram – so technically I and the rest of the world that do not participate in Instagram will never be a customer. Am I being discriminated against? I wouldn’t be surprised to see lawsuits over such an approach in the future – but whereas there is legislation to ensure disabled access and facilities on site, these rules don’t apply online.

This is not just discriminating against people because of age, or general acceptance of technology, but disability. Don’t forget there 1.3 billion people with vision impairment in the world, including 36 million blind people. In the UK, there are 1.4 million people with a learning disability and it's estimated up to 1 in every 10 people in the UK has some degree of dyslexia.

Therefore, developers need to build for AA compliancy, without which you can alienate many people trying to access your websites. Such accessibility needs to be factored into your web design and build, especially at the start, as it’s much harder to retro fit.

The design dominance of Google

We are in a tech era where Google dictates nearly all the design principles – from algorithms, to how you appear in search results, how secure the site must be, whether it’s mobile friendly, load times. All these requirements enable Google to shape the Internet and takes away an amount of creativity at the web interface level. By following Googles Material Design ethos, websites have become very similar and square, with lots of white space, using certain colour palettes that Google recommends. But it’s important to remember other aspects too - e.g. easy to access for all, allowing third party tools and eReaders. Fortunately, Google have embraced accessibility and usability best practise in their Material design approach to ensure no one is alienated.

Good multi-channel UX alleviates discrimination

The advice for brands to stop such discrimination is simple: use the appropriate channels for your audience. You will also only find the true channels with effective user research as part of your UX process.  Some brands are doing a great job of making their multi-channel products and services accessible to all, some are not.

For example, Pizza Express seem to have things well under control and fully understand the cross-channel experience.  They are not alienating anyone across their broad audience. They understand the importance of online and offline – users can phone them, visit reception, request printed material, and use mobile, apps, website and social interactions.

Understand your audience and don’t get caught up in the tech hype – often not everyone is into the tech as much as marketers! It’s dangerous to deliberately sacrifice a certain audience, while your business might be successful now, in 2/3 years you might need the 20 or 30% of users that you had excluded.

Any B2C business with a broad user base has the hardest task of engaging across multiple channels in a cost-effective way. For example, banks are closing branches and pushing people online as a cost saving exercise. Many people are now having trouble getting to a branch, particularly older retired people who often do not trust or embrace new technology. YouGov data shows that one in five (17%) of Britons visit a bank branch at least once a month. Unsurprisingly, the data also shows that mainly older, retired people frequent physical bank branches. Almost a third (32%) are over 65, and 33% are retired. Banks clearly believe such alienation is worthwhile.

A complete mobile-first approach isn’t always easy, but with in-depth user research and applying foresight along with considering people outside of your normal demographic - and applying offline principles - you can get it right. If you excluded someone in the real-world, for example, a restaurant with no accessible toilet or wheelchair access, you will likely face prosecution. But no such legislation exists for websites. Yes there are W3C Accessibility standards, but these are not compulsory for businesses. There should be a mandatory code of conduct covering design principles governed to ensure sites are highly accessible, easy to use, meet everyone’s needs and behaviour, and don’t alienate any user segments. Ok, rant over.

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