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Last week I published a review of the new BBC News mobile site, which was apparently built using responsive design.

It’s a decent site and is easy to use, however there was some debate in the comments section over whether the approach the BBC has used is definitely responsive design.

In fact a vast majority of commenters were adamant that the BBC's site is adaptive design rather than responsive.

So to bring some clarity to the situation, I asked three mobile experts what responsive design in mobile means, what the benefits are and also for their opinion on the BBC News site...

1. What is responsive design?

Maani Safa, innovation director at Somo

It's a way of designing and coding websites with a fluid layout, so that images and other elements of the site adapt to the screen on which the site's being viewed. 

Terence Eden, mobile industry consultant

Responsive design builds on the idea of "One Web". A single URL should serve up content which is appropriate for the device requesting it - whether it's a laptop, tablet, mobile phone, TV, or internet fridge.

Responsive design usually means serving the same content, but giving the device instructions via CSS on how to display it appropriately.

Tim Dunn, director of mobile strategy at Isobar

Responsive design is a technique used to deploy content over the internet to various devices seamlessly - it involves deploying a site only once, and using style sheets to reformat the content based primarily on screen width to fit the device. 

2. What are the benefits of responsive design for e-commerce sites?

Maani Safa

From a user perspective, a site built using responsive design offers a high quality experience. Sites not optimised for mobile devices often display content that is difficult to navigate or too small to read. 

From the point of view of the site owner, a site that uses responsive design only needs to be built once - you don't need to build a web version, a mobile version and a tablet version separately - so this usually saves time and money. 

Plus, any updates that then need to be made only have to be implemented on one site. 

Terence Eden

We know that customers like shopping on their phones and tablets, but most e-commerce sites are hideous to use on a small screen.

Responsive design - when done right - provides for a simpler and faster experience.

Tim Dunn

For e-commerce, the pros and cons of responsive are more or less the same as for anyone else. The benefits are that you can in theory only need to develop and maintain one site, which will work over all devices.  

3. What are the potential negatives for e-commerce sites planning to use responsive design?

Maani Safa

Responsive design has very few negatives in itself as such, but building a site in this way does require thorough planning and a good understanding of the customer journey through the site on every type of device. 

The best responsive designs start by thinking mobile first - not desktop first. A good mobile user experience usually translates well to desktop. The same isn't always true the other way round. 

Terence Eden

A minority of users won't like the way the responsive site looks. If they're used to navigating one way on their desktop, having a different interface on a tablet may confuse them. 

Tim Dunn

The drawbacks are numerous: primary among them is that responsive will deliver more or less a web experience, but reformatted for mobile, rather than a true mobile experience.

The context for mobile usage, and therefore the objectives for the site and its consequent design and journeys may be completely different, but responsive only provides one user journey across all devices.

Also, while only one set of HTML is required, the difference in the stylesheets to provide a custom mobile experience may well be so great that maintaining two sites is actually easier.

Also with responsive being in a very early stage, the toolkits and resources available are immature, so require very specialist resource at the moment.

4. If an e-commerce site already had a separate m-commerce site would you recommend switching to responsive design?

Maani Safa

Not necessarily, no. If a major overhaul of the site is required then starting again using a responsive design is often a good route to take, but it's rarely worth changing just for the sake of it, provided the mobile site is working well. 

Terence Eden

No - as long as they are able to move customers to the appropriate site, there's no need to switch. But you have to make sure that you offer all the functionality of your main site on your mobile site. As you add more features, that may become difficult to maintain. 

That's where the beauty of responsive design comes in - you have one site but present it differently to different classes of devices.

Tim Dunn

Definitely not, unless you are considering replatforming your desktop site and you feel that you are incurring a lot of cost or operational overhead maintaining your current mobile site.

5. Is the BBC’s site built using responsive design?

Maani Safa

Strictly speaking, no, it doesn't look like it. The site is 'responsive' in that it responds to being viewed on different devices, displaying content in a way that's appropriate to that screen, but it doesn't look like it's been coded as one 'responsive design' site. 

The site detects the device that you're accessing the site from, but if you resize the browser window on a desktop, the content doesn't automatically rearrange itself, as you would expect from a truly responsive design (e.g. Smashing Magazine). 

It looks like the mobile site is separate (the fact that the URL is m.bbc.co.uk/news also suggests this). The site is probably better described as 'adaptive' design rather than responsive.

Terence Eden

No.  The BBC's mobile site is fairly responsive.  If you view it on different sized phones and tablets it adapts quite well. But it is an entirely separate site from the main BBC news site. 

The BBC are doing device detection and redirecting mobile users. It's not a bad strategy per se - but it is not best practice.

Tim Dunn

It has some elements of responsive in how it deals with screen width on mobile devices. For example, see how the menu expands and the two columns become three when you turn the phone sideways.

However, it's not true responsive as you can tell from the fact that it is on a separate 'm.' URL, and when you adjust the desktop browser width, the site does not react accordingly.

I fear that the BBC fundamentally don't understand what responsive means if they're making statements like the one they have made, but this is a fairly complex issue with many shades of grey between one approach and the other.

David Moth

Published 29 October, 2012 by David Moth @ Econsultancy

David Moth is Editor and Head of Social at Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via Google+ and LinkedIn

1678 more posts from this author

Comments (26)

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Josh McCoy

In 2011, nearly 90% of websites were not able to be viewed properly on mobile devices. This goes for tablets and smartphones.

With the evolution of web design, smartphones and tablets are going to explode in the next few years; most likely out running the desktop market.

Sure, some websites may respond on mobile when you double-click on text per se, but in all actuality there isn't an excuse not to have a mobile friendly website within the next couple of years.

over 3 years ago

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Tom Hacon

Interesting article. Why anyone would take the approach of building separate sites for desktop and mobile is beyond me. Especially as they will have to be updated separately for the rest of their existence.

Responsive has to be most cost effective and easiest to maintain approach to web design.

over 3 years ago

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Chris Constantine

This story highlights the problems our industry can have when terms such as 'responsive' and 'html5' are latched on to and banded about by every man and his dog. Right now "the client wants a responsive HTML5 site" is my favorite, but is often delivered with no qualification whatsoever.

As the world sits up and starts to take mobile seriously, we must be prepared to stand our ground, educate and not let bad practices creep in. Every project has to be evaluated individually and the right techniques applied accordingly. Responsive, adaptive, whatever. There is no 'best solution'. However, those terms should always be applied to us and the way we work.

By the way, Adaptive rules!

over 3 years ago

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Richard Welch

I agree with Terence Eden's first comment, although I'm not sure if it fits in with most of what people are calling responsive design.

"A single URL should serve up content which is appropriate for the device requesting it - whether it's a laptop, tablet, mobile phone, TV, or internet fridge."

I agree with this comment in the sense that it says it is best to tailor user experience based on the device. The thing that concerns me with many responsive websites out there is that its possible to view a mobile or tablet optimised layout on a desktop since the website is programmed to respond to the width of the users window, not device width. I cant understand why anyone would want this, yet many big organisations are going with this approach. I think part of it is confusion down to what is and is not possible. In my opinion putting a mobile layout on a desktop, or a tablet layout on desktop risks watering down the impact of the design and overall experience. These devices provide a different experience! Its not just about screen width since buttons and navigation on smaller devices are often totally different - so why make this possible to view these on a desktop? A tablet experience is optimised for that device - hand held and operated by touch. In my opinion it should not be possible to view a tablet layout on a desktop and indeed a mobile layout on a desktop but it seems to be the norm with responsive design. Simple techniques to detect the device-width rather than the window width will make it possible to deliver the best possible experience by not mixing up layouts and providing the layout specific to the device the user is using. Which goes back to Terence's original comment where I'm not sure how it fits in with typical 'responsive design'. Does that make it adaptive design? I'm not sure the exact meaning myself...

I believe the BBC have got it right, or at least partly right. They have a desktop website which makes use of the larger screen size. If people are viewing it on a small window and cannot read the whole page they probably know by now how to maximise the window. I think in 2012 this is a fair assumption? The BBC site also responds to individual groups of devices, so smart phones with varying screen sizes (and portrait / landscape mode) and tablets with there own range of screen sizes - so the experience is always optimised to the relevant device. I think the single URL approach can be used here in a similar way by using the other responsive principles, but focusing more on device-width rather than the window of the window. I just think 'responsive design' or 'adaptive design?' could be more intelligent and respond within the parameters of device groups. There you go, intelligent responsive design - the future ;)

over 3 years ago

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James

I think the BBC have got a hard time here. Whilst it's true the BBC website as a whole isn't responsive as we understand the term, there are elements which are, such as the BBC One section. I think this shows they probably do understand responsive design and are taking steps to implement it/experiment with it. However, it's such a huge website, they are probably cautious of adopting what is still a new concept across the whole site in one big swoop. There is an interesting blog post from the BBC here http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/bbcinternet/2012/06/bbc_tv_channel_homepages_redes.html

over 3 years ago

Tim Dunn

Tim Dunn, Director of Strategy at Isobar Mobile and Mobile Futures

Good point Chris - remember when we built the New Look site, and our then PR department branded it 'the first HTML5 commerce site' or something similar - despite the fact there was not one line of actual HTML5 in it!

over 3 years ago

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Jim

Just as an aside I'd like to see examples of how CSS can be used to respond to different devices and different operating systems (both mobile and desktop). In principle that sounds very clunky and complicated. I can go Google how CSS tailors OS-specific responses but I'd like to see that complexity addressed by people mentioning this technique. This complexity may be why the BBC site is only a mobile version.

over 3 years ago

Tim Dunn

Tim Dunn, Director of Strategy at Isobar Mobile and Mobile Futures

Jim:
www.isobar.com
www.nuts.com
www.hiutdenim.co.uk

There are quite alot now...

over 3 years ago

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Matthew Kay

It looks like everyone is still confused about RWD. All you really talk about here is layout which is what I would expect from people who have not really busted their chops building responsive sites that experiment with media queries to do more than stack or remove content based on the width of the browser window. Can we please get some opinions from people who have designed and built deep level responsive (not adaptive) websites who are not just jumping on another rising star.

over 3 years ago

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Online Optimism

While it certainly is a challenge converting a website to a responsive design, we believe that by starting now you'll be light-years ahead of companies that do it in the future. With the proliferation of multiple sized devices within the three largest demographics (computers, tablets, and mobile), every website will eventually need to be able to adjust quickly and easily to whichever screen you're viewing it on.

The BBC's website is a good first step, but eventually, even theirs will need to become fully responsive. We go further into this topic on our blog:

http://bit.ly/TIMEresponsive

over 3 years ago

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Josh McCoy

I'm a firm believer in responsive web design. Mobile sites are just too bland, and lose brand equity in my eyes. Having a mobile site is better than not having one at all.

over 3 years ago

Tim Dunn

Tim Dunn, Director of Strategy at Isobar Mobile and Mobile Futures

@Josh - many mobile sites are bland - however that's due to people not putting in the effort - try http://toyota.co.uk/m/gt86/start.html - click through and select Explore from the menu...

There's loads you can do to enhance brand...

over 3 years ago

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minimi

@Tim Dunn: regarding PR, marketing and all other glorious departments around the actual IT development, "HTML5" is the new "Web 2.0" stamp

over 3 years ago

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Jim

Thanks for the reply, @Tim.

over 3 years ago

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Abhijeet

Thanks David for the useful information n sharing the idea on site design strategy.
I would like to share an example of a stock investing site which is built on similar lines- http://m.moneyworks4me.com/mobile and currently optimized for Android platform.

over 3 years ago

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Rab Caine

Not all sites fit the RWD model, and it's not always cost effective to pay out for the additional designs required.

over 3 years ago

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Alan Muscsat

My favourite is http://www.greenbelt.org.uk/ . I have been deconstructing this website in order to get somewhere near its beauty with my own websites. Not got close enough yet.

over 3 years ago

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Alan Muscat

@Online Optimism: that's an interesting device you use for replacing your menu - a drop down list. Not sure I like it, but interesting. Not sure I would have the menu set to the page it is on eg Blog. You see I didn't realise that it was the replacement menu, but if instead it said MENU then i would have know it was the navigation device.

We changed the menu in the following way: www.tnsft.com. I don't regard this as the answer either, I don't think it is prominent enough, but that will change soon.

over 3 years ago

Paul McManus

Paul McManus, Head of Mobile at Betway

I think people are giving the BBC a bit of a hard time on this. Yes, "Responsive Design" is a buzz word just as "HTML5" is, but we simply cannot apply the same design AND user cases to every organisation going.

The BBC are a huge content provider - moving to pure responsive design isn't a simple task as it would be with an agency/portfolio website. Personally I agree with the strategy they have undertaken in the sense that they have a combination of adaptive and responsive right now, with a view to bringing in the desktop experience to the current 'm' site, which will then become the 'www' or main experience, making it fully responsive.

There are a wide variety of 'types' of websites out there and responsive needs to be both justified and then implemented in the best way possible for that particular offering. We have content providers (e.g. BBC, Guardian), portfolio sites, blogs, retail and a huge variety of other sites.

Lots to think about before even making the plunge into RWD.

over 3 years ago

Paul McManus

Paul McManus, Head of Mobile at Betway

On a related note, I was recently at the Breaking Development conference in Dallas which included a talk from Tom Maslen from the BBC, entitled 'How BBC Fell in Love with Responsive Design' which was very interesting - see some notes taken here:

http://www.lukew.com/ff/entry.asp?1637

over 3 years ago

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The Holt Partnership

Currently, there is too much hype surrounding Responsive Design and Website owners are not being given a balanced view. Common sense tells you; when trying to acheive a one size fits all approach, compromises will have to be made. There is no getting away from it. Common sense also tells you; more work will be involved and, therefore, a higher cost. The viewer experience has to be put in context. Do you really think if looking for a new Sofa, people will prefer to use their Mobile Phone to search the Internet and view products, rather than by using a Desktop? There are merits to Responsive, Adaptive and Mobile verisons of Websites. For the vast majority of small business website owners, the low cost Mobile version is still the best way forward at the moment.

over 3 years ago

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Gareth O' Neill

Responsive design is not always the best solution. People behave differently on mobile than the do on a desktop and responsive design restricts what you can do in terms of how your site can look. Too many companies are unoriginal in their mobile site design and the nuts.com site is an example of a site that is not truly optimised for mobile.

Sometimes it's just better to go down the different design routes for mobile and desktop.

over 3 years ago

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Stephen Whiteley

Wriiten a critique of responsive design - I would very much appreciate your comments http://anomalyanalytics.tumblr.com/post/38374442541/responsive-web-design-a-flash-in-the-pan

over 3 years ago

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Mahender Reddy

Thats an interesting article. I would rather go with regular ecommerece site than Mobile site. Considering good responsive design for any Ecommerece site is must thing as it will definitely reduce the bounce rate. BTW today I am saw many new names in the article.

over 3 years ago

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lesley adair, Fidelity

Completely agree with Tim Dunn's comments around the negative side of RS.

Designers often forget about the context in which a user is consuming digital content.

For example, I check my bank balance on my mobile, I check my bank statement on my PC. Context dictates the device I use which is driven by the content I wish to consume.

almost 3 years ago

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Mark Lee, Marketing at ABC

Such a nice and informative article shared above thanks for this.In Changing Era we have a website who is capable to fit the all small or big devices like Mobiles,Tabs,I pads etc.

over 2 years ago

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