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Difference Between Mobile-First and Responsive Web Designs
Leah Mangold
Something we often say is "responsive isn't enough anymore; your website needs to be mobile-first."

You might be thinking: wait, doesn't that mean the same thing? 

And the answer is, no it doesn’t. A mobile-first website is always responsive, but a responsive website isn’t always mobile-first. The former is a technical approach, while the latter is an intentional design choice centered around understanding how people interact with mobile devices differently than desktops.

Why is this important to know now — in light of COVID-19?  

Prospective and current families depend on your school or district’s website more now than they ever have before. From distance learning to virtual campus tours, graduation ceremonies, and fundraising events, the ability to provide high-quality online experiences has become a distinguishing factor in both K-12 and higher education. 

Moving forward, this distinction will be even stronger. A school or district whose digital campus matches the caliber of its in-person experiences will be favored by parents over the schools and districts that don’t make the effort. As such, any decision you make about your website that may hinder or improve the user experience should not be taken lightly. 

In this blog, you will learn:

  • What Is Responsive Web Design?
  • What Is Mobile-First Web Design?
  • Key Differences Between Responsive Design and Mobile-First Design
  • Why Mobile First Design Matters for your School

Website Redesign Playbook

What is Responsive Web Design?

Responsive web designs respond to changes in device display sizes. So when you display a website on a smartphone, for example, you’ll be looking at different dimensions than if you were viewing it on your tablet, laptop, or desktop, for example.

Think of responsive web design as water: it will fit into whatever you pour it. Because it is shifting content to fit other devices, rather than taking into consideration the experience on those devices, the mobile experience can be lacking. 

Related Articles: 

5 Tips For Great Responsive School Websites

5 Undeniable Reasons Why Your School's Website Needs To Be Responsive

What is Mobile-First Web Design?

Mobile-first design, on the other hand, is a proactive approach to web design. It’s about creating a website that not only works on mobile devices, but is designed for users on mobile devices. 

Key Features of Mobile-First Design

When browsing a website on your phone, it’s annoying to have to open multiple tabs — or worse, lose the page you were on because you clicked away too soon. Yet on many responsive websites, users have to click several times just to navigate to one interior page (and often it's not even the page they were looking for). A mobile-first approach modifies the navigation process significantly.

Hebron Academy, for example, uses an accordion-style navigation menu to give a preview of what you can find inside each section. It’s much more user-friendly; visitors simply scan each section and navigate directly to the information they need.

screenshot of hebron academy's mobile-first navigation

Cell phone users navigate with their thumbs, not an itty-bitty computer cursor. Therefore, mobile-first designs pay special attention to anything clickable— buttons are larger, hyperlinked sections are larger, and items in a clickable list or accordion are spaced further apart. No need to make it more difficult for folks with clumsy thumbs! 

Less is more, especially when it comes to the mobile experience. While responsive websites do condense all the content on a desktop to make it physically possible to read, the end result is often not conducive to the average mobile visitor’s reading preference. Most people scroll past long paragraphs, and they’d rather not have to scroll through it at all. 

Mobile-first websites simplify bulky content and provide information in a way that today’s mobile-users will engage with.

If you’re looking to see these features in action, check out Jackson County Public School’s website. Its navigation is noticeably different than the standard responsive website shown in this video example. 

Your text sizes also play a role in reading comprehension. To improve readability on your mobile-first website, font sizes should be no smaller than 16 pixels. (No one should have to zoom in on the screen just to read a few body paragraphs!). 

For header text, go even larger. The key for mobile devices is to make information easy to scan so that users can find what they are looking for at a glance. Large headings help to separate content into smaller, scannable sections. 

Key Differences Between Responsive Design and Mobile-First Design

The main difference between responsive web design and mobile-first design is how the designer approaches the website. A responsive website is reactive — the design moving fluidly to fit devices. A mobile-first website is when the mobile website planned and designed in tandem with the desktop site, making proactive changes to the overall design to ensure the mobile experience is just as good as the desktop experience.

While both designs make your school or district’s website accessible on all devices, a mobile-first experience offers a better overall user experience because a variety of considerations are taken into account during the design phase, such as white space, font size, and load time.

Why Mobile-First Design Matters for Your Digital Campus

1. Mobile-First Design is an Audience-Based Strategy

If you were developing your social media plan and you found out that 90 percent of your target audience used Instagram while only 10 percent used Facebook; you’d likely focus most of your energy on creating great Instagram content (and leave some room in your schedule for adapting content to perform well on Facebook). 

Similarly, if you know that half or more of your audience is visiting your website on a mobile device (and they are!), it doesn’t make sense to focus your design decisions solely around the desktop. Take in these stats:

A design that “wows” on mobile can help schools and districts attract and retain those community members who will never see the design on a desktop. 

2. Mobile-First Design Increases Community Engagement

It’s important to make your website easy for families to browse on mobile devices because they are what makes your community thrive. Happy parents, students and community members are more likely to engage with your school’s content, stay connected, and support school initiatives. 

Related Articles: 

6 Qualities Of Great Mobile-First Design

Mobile First And Other Tips From Lincoln Community School’s Website Redesign

Frequently Asked Questions

If I have a mobile-first website, do I still need a mobile app?


A mobile-first website is not the same as a mobile app.

Your website is a critical marketing tool for communication with prospective families in particular. It’s where you share your unique value proposition, highlight your academic programs, and provide content offers that fuels your school’s admissions funnel or communicate with important stakeholders. 

But for individuals already in your school community, a mobile app is an incredibly valuable resource. An app can help parents access more specific content that isn’t relevant to the general public (or filter only the content they want to see). Plus, push notifications and other direct messaging features provide instant communications in a way that isn’t possible with only a mobile-first website. 

Related Articles: 

Mobile Apps Vs. Mobile-First Websites: Why Your School Should Use Both

If my website isn’t mobile-first, should we redesign now? 


All schools and districts should be thinking about whether their website is optimized for the growing number of people who use the web exclusively on their mobile phones. By ensuring that the mobile experience comes first, you can put your communities’ needs first. Informed families are more engaged and supportive of the work that's happening in your schools, so it's a win for your school, too.

Key Takeaway

Responsive websites are a technical norm. Mobile-first is a design and content strategy. If your digital campus strategy is not prioritizing the mobile experience, it’s time for a mindset shift — and, more than likely, a new website.

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As Finalsite's content specialist, Leah promotes new school websites and exemplary content marketing examples from schools around the world. She’s also writer and editor of numerous blog articles, eBooks and presentations on best practices for digital marketing, social media, and school web design. Leah found her passion for international education at Arcadia University, where she earned her BA in Global Communications and studied abroad in England, Greece, Vietnam and Australia. When she’s not exploring new places, she’s either blogging, doodling, or dreaming about it

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