Before delving into this topic, let us first understand what is a “mobile-first” approach?

In a “mobile-first” approach you hire a WordPress developer and design a desktop site by starting with the mobile version. This version is then adapted to larger screens, unlike the traditional approach in which the desktop site is built first and then it is adapted to smaller screens.

Significance of a mobile-first website
The “mobile-first” approach has assumed significance because it ensures that you deliver the right User Experience (UX) to the right screen. Since the space available on a mobile phone screen is limited, it becomes essential for the designers to prioritize those elements of the website that are most important from a user’s perspective.

Secondly, Google has now switched to mobile-first indexing for all websites. Mobile-first indexing means Google’s crawling of the web using a smart phone Googlebot. Here Google uses the mobile version of the content of a website for the purpose of indexing and ranking a website.

Using WordPress to build a mobile-first website
WordPress offers an excellent platform to build mobile-first websites. Although there are challenges in putting together a mobile-optimized WordPress theme, if you hire a WordPress developer who is experienced and follows the golden rules mentioned below, then you can overcome those challenges easily and get a website that loads fast, operates in a predictable way, is user-friendly, and accessible to people using different devices and screen sizes.

Content comes first for mobile WordPress themes
Since the mobile phone screen is just about 4 inches across, there is very less real estate available to play around with design details and other elements. It is worthwhile to:

– Remove all superfluous design elements that are non-essential for content presentation.
– Ensure that that the main content block is as high on the design canvas as possible.
– Use appropriate fonts and sizes that make the content readable.
– Use good contrast elements that bring out the text against any background. This will be helpful, especially if you are reading a page in a sunny area.

Focus on image optimization
Image optimization is necessary so that when people on slow mobile networks access an image, it is able to load quickly. For this, it is recommended not to use the images ‘as is’, but to make them ‘ready’ for use in a mobile-optimized WordPress theme. For this:

– Integrate lazy load functionality in your theme. Lazy load feature loads images only when the visitor scrolls to them. It is recommended to build the feature using jQuery and it’s Lazy Load Plugin. This will obviate a scenario where a lazy load plugin installed by a user interferes with the lazy load functionality that you have built into your WordPress theme.

As a backup, you can deactivate lazy load in your theme’s settings.

– Optimize the images for size and quality so that they consume minimum bandwidth. For this, you can do two things:

o Ensure that the images are not bigger than their required size.
o Optimize all images using a tool like Optimole or TinyPNG

– Use icon fonts as much as possible. Tools such as Font Awesome are recommended, as they enrich designs with beautiful fonts, and yet keep the performance at a decent level.

Focus on making the design Retina-ready (optimized for high-DPI screens)
These days all new devices come with high DPI display screens that make everything look sharp. For this it is essential that the design has been optimized for high-DPI viewing, else users will see a lot of pixelation. To avoid this, when you hire a WordPress developer you can:

– Use image fonts – mentioned above. These image fonts scale automatically and look impressive on all mobile phones.
– Create alternative versions of all the other images – at twice the size and swap them with CSS whenever a high-DPI device is being used to view the content.
– Review the favicons in your theme and allow users to change them.

Optimize for tapping feature
Since most mobile devices these days support either touch interfaces or are completely touch-screen-based, you need to make every tappable element big enough so users can access it easily.

For this it is recommended to use buttons that are big, have a large touch area and gel with the theme’s interface.

Also, since most users use thumbs for tapping, it is a good idea to place the main “call to action” buttons on the easily accessible thumb zones.

Focus on critical aspects of performance in a mobile-first website
Apart from making a theme responsive, it is also important to focus on the aspect of performance. In other words there should not be any issues related to image optimization, buttons should tap accurately and site should load accurately and quickly.

Make the theme compatible for all mobile browsers
When you hire a WordPress developer, it is a best practice if he or she makes your theme compatible for all mobile browsers since there are hundreds of different devices and screen specs involved. Two noteworthy points:

– Keep testing your work on all major browsers right from start rather than doing browser tests when the theme is already done.

– Test the theme on as many devices as you can. The more the different screen sizes, resolutions, and ratios, the better will be the results.

Focus on User Experience (UX)
It is a known fact that when using a mobile device, people have very little time to search and expect that the information that they are looking for should be easily available.

The onus therefore lies on the WordPress developer that you hire to build a theme that puts additional focus on specific elements that impart the required information that is critical for mobile visitors.

The easiest way to do this is via well-designed widget areas that appear on the homepage and remain in the top part of the visible area of the screen.

Don’t crowd the design space
Your WordPress developer should work under the principle ‘Less is more’. In other words:
– Leave less space for branding elements such as logo and more space for actual content.
– Introduce short and accessible menus that ideally fit either into a single line of text, or appear as a drop-down list.

– Get rid of unimportant menus, for example the footer menu.
– Avoid extra website features such as image sliders, social media integration custom galleries that can cause problems for mobile users.

Optimize the file uploading functionality
Since many mobile devices do not support modern web features it is recommended that when you hire a WordPress developer, he or she should use solutions that detect HTML5 and CSS3 features in the user’s browser and then load only those libraries or modules that are needed to execute a given functionality. As a rule:
– Don’t import libraries & external scripts if they are not essential for theme’s functionality.
– Always load JavaScript files at the end of the HTML structure rather than at the beginning.
– Minimize the number of DOM elements in your HTML structure uses.
– Load CSS files and JavaScript for every page individually.

Carry out performance tests on a test server
Although a local test server will work initially, a more advanced testing set up will be needed in future. It is recommended to install your theme on a few test environments to see how it performs in actual conditions. You can also install the theme on a few shared hosting accounts and carry out various tests using different tools.

If you follow the above steps when you hire a WordPress developer, you can easily build a mobile first, performance orientated WordPress theme.