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Posted on April 29, 2013 at 12:33 pm
We won’t speak for you, but we find ourselves easily swept along by the headlines today, headlines that tend to polarize rather than foster a thoughtful discussion. The latest rush to judgment involves responsive design, the design and construction of a website that allows it to adjust automatically to different screen sizes—desktop, tablet or mobile. Half the requests we get today mandate responsive design as if it were so obviously the right thing to do. But it ain’t necessarily so.
Responsive design is neither the right nor the wrong path, nor is it necessarily more or less expensive or easier to maintain. It is simply an option. Responsive design is device-independent, meaning that the user experience will be more or less optimized for whatever size device a user has in hand. Sounds great, but there are costs in both time and dollars associated with responsive design. You have to decide if it’s worth the cost.
From the site owner’s point of view, all you want, really, is a comfortable, streamlined user experience across platforms and ease of maintenance. Do you really need to legislate how this gets done? Why not talk about it?
Before we all board the Ark of Responsive Design, why not look first at all these factors?
Both intelligent web/dedicated mobile and responsive design can perform across platforms—desktop, tablet and smartphone. If you’re tethered to a mouse or trackpad, you want your cursor to move easily among the navigation items. If you pull out your iPad, you hope your fingers replace the mouse comfortably without being forced to enlarge the viewable page and, of course, you want the same easy experience on a smartphone. All of these experiences can be accomplished with planning either intelligent web/dedicated mobile design or responsive design.
Dedicated mobile-design applied style sheets, which hide some—and change other—elements of the desktop design to match the viewer’s environment. Responsive sites must be coded to have dynamic styles that can move and shift to display the site’s most important content prominently. Since a site’s most important content may change from one width to another, designs must reflect that content rank order accordingly. This will challenge the people tasked with entering their site’s content into a content management system, because they must be conscious of content on all the responsive widths.
Does responsive design compromise brand effectiveness? The short answer is no, but designing responsively requires more collaboration with clients, design and development teams.
Remember, the same user is a different user sitting down than when on the run. Responsive design places its emphasis on speed in the user experience. “Just get me to the church on time.” Streamline the journey. Pay attention to the difference between what users do on a desktop versus their behavior on a phone. Browsing is not the same verb as rushing. Mobile means “on the move.” A laptop requires you to be “sitting down.”
This means that promotional content, images and brand messages could be compromised with responsive design (if not properly understood and prioritized) in order to get from A to B, as they should on a smartphone. “Find that lawyer’s number” is different from “I’d like to learn more about that law firm.” Or accounting firm. Or consulting firm.
There’s a technical glitch, too, with responsive design. Most contemporary mobile and tablet browsers support CSS3 (which “powers” responsive design—but not all. Some sites would be better served with the normal desktop website.
More Alike Than Different In Cost, Effort and Impact
You never seem to read in the paeans to responsive design that the business case for responsive design isn’t terribly compelling. Responsive design:
- does not automatically result in savings in time,
- requires the same sacrifices to the screen as normal development; in other words, menus become collapsed, animation is compressed, sidebars are eliminated and everything scrolls up and down on a smartphone no matter how it is developed, and
- does not automatically result in cost savings.
More Different Than Alike In Cost, Effort and Impact in the Long Run
A website is not a one-time investment. You can’t launch it and forget it. When you wish to redesign your website (in three years), you will be required to rebuild your entire site if you have chosen to build your site responsively, but not so if you have separated the desktop and mobile build. You could make a more considered decision, deferring one or the other.
The Role of Analytics in the Decision
Smart marketers track the point of entry to their website to determine whether a platform-specific app would be right for their client base. If analytics show less than 5% of your site’s traffic arrives via mobile or tablet, there is very little need to invest in a responsively-designed website. When smartphone usage dominates your traffic, design responsively to create a brilliant mobile site.
If your site is a hub for large downloadable documents, cell phone users will be unhappy and thus more likely to use their laptop to grab the doc. If your site is primarily a directory, then the desktop can play second fiddle to the smartphone. In other words, rather than just jump on the responsive design bandwagon, evaluate your users and your site.
Responsive design is an option, not a religion. Get off the train and stretch your legs. Refer to our last article on tablet design to inform your thinking. Keep an open mind. Chill.
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