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The saying 'one size doesn't fit all' may be true in many cases, but with the use of -- and interest in -- responsive design skyrocketing, more and more companies are asking whether that's necessarily true when it comes to web design.

The idea of having a single website, with a single codebase, that can serve web, mobile and tablet clients is a powerful one. But just how realistic is it?

When considering responsive design approach, there are five areas of consideration companies should look at carefully.

1. Information architecture

While the idea that you can have a single website that serves both web and mobile users is very appealing for obvious reasons, the reality is that currently, there are many instances in which multiple experiences serve users better. With this in mind, responsive design raises important questions about information architecture (IA). Put simply, companies considering a responsive design approach need to ask themselves whether or not they can come up with a single IA that makes sense on both the web and mobile.

2. SEO

Responsive design is increasingly pitched as a form of mobile SEO. And for good reason: Google likes responsive design. That doesn't, however, necessarily mean it should be a deciding factor in whether you use responsive design or not. Doing what you can to promote organic traffic search traffic is good, but if a responsive design compromises your ability to, for instance, build a mobile experience that converts as well as your web experience, you have a problem.

3. Functionality requirements

If you have a basic corporate website with limited interactive functionality, responsive design probably doesn't pose any major challenges vis-à-vis the limitations that phone and tablet devices can impose on your ability to use client-side technologies like JavaScript. But if your website does require the use of these things, a responsive design may force you to rethink key functionality. The risk: you dumb down your web experience to support the mobile experience.

4. Expertise

Some believe that responsive design will become a best practice in the coming years, and they might be right. There's a lot to like about approach, and as mobile and tablet devices become more capable, there will probably be fewer and fewer legitimate reasons to avoid responsive design. But right now, responsive design is an emerging practice and the number of designers and developers who can claim significant experience and chops with responsive design is still a small fraction of the overall designer/developer pool. That can make finding folks to implement and maintain a responsive design more difficult, particularly if your website requires more robust functionality.

5. Cost

Building great web and mobile experiences is generally a worthwhile investment for companies, and in many cases a responsive design may be the way to go about making that investment. But depending on your requirements, designing and implementing a responsive design may not come cheap; in fact, it could cost more than building dedicated web and mobile versions of your site.

Patricio Robles

Published 6 August, 2012 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2402 more posts from this author

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Petar Subotic, Worker at Company

I argue that cost of responsive design is generally lower than traditional solutions.

Agencies and marketers that are used to having sets of wireframes, then mockups, then final design comps, then front end files, depicting exactly what the user will be served need to forget all that if they decide to go down the responsive route.

Approaching responsive design by utilizing rapid prototyping, flexible & scalable frameworks and established visual & interaction pattern libraries can significantly reduce their cost.

about 4 years ago

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Toni Aničić

I had a few meetings with front-end developers of our company regarding mobile vs. responsive and conclusion was responsive.

It could be that building a good responsive experience is not affordable, but if price is not a question, responsive is the way to go.

about 4 years ago

Matthew Curry

Matthew Curry, Head of Ecommerce at Lovehoney

I don't get a couple of the arguments here Patricio, I'm afraid. IA - yes, escpecially if you believe context changes via device (although I would say context changing on bandwidth being more likley).

Rob Borley of Headscape makes a good point most articles imply that responsive has to be in lieu of a mobile site, which isn't true. You could have a responsive site that works to most viewport sizes, and tablet devices, but still havea seperate mobile site if, again, the IA has to change drastically.

However, the other arguments don't stand up. SEO specifically, since with a mobile site you have content duplication, a mess of canonicallisation, and Google trying to decide what is best. We had an issue last year where Google temporarily decided our mobile site was a better match for our brand searches than the desktop site. This was despite doing all the config required to tell G it was a mobile site.

Also, as Google prizes content above all else, only having to worry about creating content on the single site sounds like a better idea to me.

Finally - expertise wise, I don't follow any developers that "aren't" currently working in responsive. RWD is hardly a new concept, the technologies have been around for years. The hold up seems to be from an agency point of view, since it's a harder pitch to clients and often requires a radical rejig of underlying templates.

about 4 years ago

Christopher Rose

Christopher Rose, PPC Marketing Director at Rose Digital Marketing

I'm not even a developer by trade, just by default or necessity, and I am 100% confident I can build a great looking, fully responsive web site for any business, including even an e-commerce site, so I think this is a bit of a storm in a teacup issue.

In fact, it is so easy to build great, responsive, scalable web sites these days that I suspect being a site dev is not quite the great career path it once was!

about 4 years ago

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Richard Borrie

Unfortunately mobile users and search engines have different needs. The concept of responsive design is being pushed by search engines largely for their own convenience - because they don't like separate desktop and mobile sites, and the perfectly valid content duplication that brings with it.

Of course we all have to keep the search engines happy, but should that be at the expense of losing user engagement? No matter how cleverly you do it, responsive design means the tail is wagging the dog. Mobile users work in a very different context to desktop users, location is likely to be more important, and rich desktop navigation needs to be stripped out. One size fits all makes life easier for search engines, but not necessarily for users. The system maintenance overhead of separate mobile and desktop sites is not that great - keep the same codebase and just use separate XSL layers to render site-specific HTML.

We are seeing mobile users at around 17% of total visitors, and users with smartphones are often motivated shoppers with disposable income. On that basis we think it is worth the small amount of extra effort of having separate sites to give mobile users the best experience without compromising our desktop users. However we can also see that Google in particular doesn’t like it. For the time being we’ve decided to stick it out, because it seems fundamentally wrong that we should have to pull the plug on our mobile users just because a search engine doesn’t like them. In fairness the Google guidelines for smartphone-optimized sites (June 2012) do tell you to configure your desktop and mobile sites in such a way that Google can recognise the relationship, but it is clear they would much rather you had just the one site.

about 4 years ago

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Jon Exley

I've been advocating responsive web design for over a year now and the main reason for me is lack of content duplication. Yes, it will take slightly longer to fully optimise the mobile/tablet experience, but it's much less time than building a dedicated mobile site, and therefore cost effective in the longer term.

The biggest issue I've faced with RWD has been in initially upsetting the sales team (they're now unable to charge clients for a separate mobile site). However, this has been offset by how impressed clients are with the approach, leading to more business.

In terms of developer expertise, this is similar to the move from tables to CSS. Any half decent CSS developer should be able to understand it pretty quickly. No excuses.

about 4 years ago

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Paul Randall

I would generally suggest a 'mobile first' approach. This way there is no dumbing down, because you make sure the core functionality is in all versions. Progressive enhancement then adds additional relevant features for tablet/desktop/tv usage.

In terms of serving up different content, in certain situations (homepages/sales pages) I completely agree. Mobile users want different things to desktop users.

Speed is the other concern, making sure that mobile versions aren't bloated by code that isn't required for them. This is why a 'mobile first' approach seems the most logical.

about 4 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy

Matthew,

I'm not making any arguments here really. I'm simply suggesting five key areas of consideration that companies should look at as they consider a responsive design approach.

about 4 years ago

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Deri Jones, CEO at SciVisum.co.uk

I'm with Richard:
> Unfortunately mobile users and search engines have different needs.

Ie - aren't the user journeys that visitors want to follow going to be different between platforms?

If they are, then RWD can't cover them all?

Tabley usage is set to grow fast - so will RWD inadvertantly just end up being 'design for tablet knowing it'll be OK on desktop too'

about 4 years ago

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Petar Subotic, Worker at Company

For all those concerned with how RWD adresses specific contextual needs I urge you to explore topic of RESS, (Responsive Server Side).

about 4 years ago

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Ryan Freeman, President at Strider Inc

re: Cost of Responsive Design

I think it's safe to argue that the cost of RWD is much more affordable than the ongoing operational cost of maintaining and synchronizing content between two sites (mobile & desktop). To stress the cost of development is very shortsighted.

about 4 years ago

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Richard Borrie

If your web platform supports mobile and desktop then the additional cost of running separate mobile sites is trivial. In our case we have a single CMS, which can publish common content and process orders on both our desktop and mobile sites – it’s hardly rocket science. The only overhead is that we have to think how mobile users will want to interact with us, which features of the site will be more (or less) important to them, and how to manage the navigation and processes accordingly … but the cost of doing that is far less than the opportunity cost of lost sales you will incur if your mobile visitors get fed up with your clunky RWD site.

RWD only makes sense if your web platform doesn’t support mobile properly and/or you don’t think mobile users (and @Deri – yes, tablet users) are that important in your situation. In any other situation it is likely to be an expensive mistake.

I just suggest that before you go the RWD route, check your Google Analytics and see how many Iphone and Ipad visitors you have.

The real issue here is that Google is pushing RWD because it makes Google’s life easier, because they only have to index one URL. As web developers we have long had to balance the needs of Google (SEO) with the needs of real visitors because of course one feeds the other, but in this case Google is pushing a strategy – RWD - which fundamentally dumbs-down the user experience. That’s not RWD, its TWD (tail-wagging-dog design).

However as I said in my earlier post, the Google’s RWD guidelines do leave the door open for separate desktop and mobile sites, and the mechanism they propose is not hard to implement. I just think they need to embrace mobile users as a separate community with different needs, rather than favouring the one-size fits all approach which RWD represents.

about 4 years ago

Christopher Rose

Christopher Rose, PPC Marketing Director at Rose Digital Marketing

It is no surprise that a web developer is arguing against RWD.

Properly done, there is no reason at all why the mobile version of an RWD site design should provide a lesser experience.

about 4 years ago

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Peter Johnston

What the article doesn't consider is that there are three, possibly four, levels of mobile - old phone, smartphone, e-reader tablet (sporadic connectivity via Wi-Fi), 3G tablet.

As a smartphone user, I want the full experience, not the sort of cut down .mobi site companies often deliver to mobiles. I'll get even more annoyed if you deliver some cut-down useless site on my tablet.

More than half of all business email is now opened on Smartphones. But that changes how they are actioned:
1. Many are viewed with images turned off to ease data usage. That puts a premium on subject lines.
2. Click throughs to slow opening websites or PDFs often mean it doesn't happen. Nobody yet has come up with a way of clicking to say "Open when I'm on a bigger machine" yet with Gmail etc. that's possible.
3. The urge to delete and move on is much higher on mobile.
4. Click-throughs to old fashioned companies like GoToMeeting are often a waste of time as their web technology isn't up to the job. A click-through which fails is a big problem - often people don't give you a second chance.
5. Further reading is not just an A4 or US letter PDF. It needs to suit the device and video etc. are expected in many markets.

about 4 years ago

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Dries B. (SEO for Responsive)

I did the switch with my blog recently. A few months back. Now i got an responsive website. The cost was not that bad, but you have to considere many things where most people don't even think about. How about A/B tests? Now you need to think about mobile & tablets too because you serve them all with one template. How about video's on mobile & tablet? Can they play certain formats? ...

The main reason to choose for a responsive design can be 2 things: Choosing to innovate and make a statement or choose because your audience needs it.

There are several businesses who can run a separate (and cheaper) solution if they want to serve mobile content. A mini-website with an address and some opening hours can already be enough for restaurants and bars for instance. A simple header checker or device detection script can do the trick and its very low cost.

I'd prefer this last option too if you want to test some ads on mobile first to see if you can gain a lot of traffic/business from mobile... after that, you can take a decision and go for a Responsive theme.

Think business. Not hype.

I chose mine to be responsive to make a statement and be the first Belgian blogger with an responsive theme ;)

about 4 years ago

Matthew Curry

Matthew Curry, Head of Ecommerce at Lovehoney

We're choosing to go responsive for the following reasons;

1) We have a very complex commerce site, with no just products and a basket, but a community, forums, wish lists, special offers, a deal of the day, a blog, buyers guides and more. We do have a mobile site, but it offered a cut down level of functionality that was just not good enough. Specifically, we have hundreds of tailored landing pages that were easily created on the WWW.version, but not then recreated in the m.version (I.e graphics recut, text edited etc. We found users preferring to go yo the WWW.version to get the full functionality.

2: The range of resolutions we were displaying at was making me uncomfortable - people think in these discrete states of mobile, tablet, desktop , but that's just not true. How can a desktop site that looks the same at 960px wide and 1900px wide be ideal? On top of that, ignoring resolution, there's viewport size - I'd prefer to have a site that optimises itself to the space it has available.

Of course, if you're shilling a platform whose USP is a pre-built mobile site, then you're not going to be in favour. However I think the concepts of mobile, tablet and desktop are reductive - mobile specifically is pretty meaningless, and in particular, too weakly correlated to context of use for us to decide the best case for each.

about 4 years ago

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Spain

Es ist allerdings lange her das meinereiner zum ersten mal auf deiner Netzauftritt war selbst erzählen ehrlich genial Design die
farbwahl ist bombig außerdem der Rest gefällt mir auch weiter
auf diese Weise zumal massenweise Riesenerfolg bei deiner Webpräsenz.

about 4 years ago

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