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Responsive design is just one of a number of options available for businesses currently devising a mobile strategy, however it is seen by many to be the only sensible long-term option.

For the uninitiated, responsive design allows websites to work from a single set of code that resizes itself to fit whatever screen a particular visitor is using, thereby negating the need for a separate mobile site.

We previously investigated the benefits of the technology in our posts looking at why Google loves responsive design and this roundup of 10 brilliant examples of responsive design in ecommerce.

But as with any new technology there are also potential downsides that businesses need to consider.

I should note at this point that I am an advocate of responsive design, so this is meant to be a point of discussion rather than a backwards-thinking attack on a new method of design.

Nonetheless, here are six potential problems that site owners should be aware of before they decide to embrace responsive design...

1. Slow loading time

Responsive design uses a single set of code so mobile users have to download the same amount of content as a desktop user.

However, a lot of the content that would load on desktop is set to “display: none” through the mobile media query, so the user is downloading a lot of unnecessary content that they won’t even see.

2. Development time and resources

It’s a fairly obvious one, but will still be one of the key considerations for businesses toying with the idea of building a responsive site.

Glance over at your overworked tech team – do they have the time and budget to undertake the project and all of its complexities?

                      

It’s likely that it will require new hires or training of existing staff to build a responsive site, which is likely to be a major issue for most businesses.

If you have an existing mobile site that caters to your customer’s needs, there needs to be an extremely good reason to start from scratch with a responsive site.

3. Catering for different user behaviours

Smartphones, tablets and desktops are different devices that encourage very different visitor behaviour.

Tablet and desktop users expect a ‘lean back’ experience where they can conveniently browse websites and spend time viewing content or researching a purchase.

In contrast, smartphone users are impatient and expect websites to give them exactly what they’re looking for with a minimum of fuss and clicks. In general they don’t want to be bothered with all the content that one would expect to see on a full desktop site.

Most of the best mobile sites available today have been designed specifically for mobile screens, taking into account user behaviour, navigation and usability.

Catering to these different expectations is difficult when using one set of code, and could possibly result in a compromised user experience on all devices.

4. Advertising

Rescaling desktop images for a mobile screen is a tricky challenge that is made more important when you consider the impact on third-party adverts.

There are established sizes for display ads, and rescaling them for a 320x480 screen could result in distorted images and unhappy advertisers.

5. Keep on scrolling

This may be an issue with poor design rather than responsive design, but rescaling desktop pages for mobile screens often results in very long pages that require a lot of scrolling.

This obviously isn’t a great user experience, as one of the key design features of mobile optimised sites is that they don’t require a great deal of pinching and scrolling.

6. More coding and testing

Though having a single set of code is supposed to make things simpler, it will have an impact on how quickly you can roll out updates and redesigns.

The reason being that if you decide to adopt responsive design then you can no longer update the desktop site in isolation, you have to consider the impact on all other devices.

This will require a lot more testing and may impede your ability to react quickly to problems. 

7. Images

This is one of the main problems that mobile developers are battling with at the moment.

The basic issue is that an image that suits a 27” desktop screen probably isn’t what you’d choose for a 3.5" smartphone screen.

For example, say you’re showing off a brand new product – on a desktop screen you might show an image of somebody using the product, but on a smartphone screen where space is tight you’d probably choose a more functional, close up image.

You’re also wasting bandwidth scaling down a hi-res desktop image for a smartphone screen.

There are several hacks that attempt to get around the problem, but none of them works every time and all have potential problems.

David Moth

Published 16 January, 2013 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

1684 more posts from this author

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Nicola

Hi,

I don't hink we can really talk of "downsides". Your first point for example depends on how you build your site. You can provide richer content to your desktop user without impacting on the loading time for mobile user. Start mobile first and use conditional loading to enhance the experience.
It's our work researching and improving. If you do a "bad" responsive design, it's your fault.
Talking about content you can use off-canvas techinuque to allow accessing more quiclky the right content.

To round up: responsive web design is hard becouse it's new and we have to study to get it right but it's our fault if we can't implement it in the right way.

The only "downside" is that we have to resarch and learn, but I repeat it's our job!

over 3 years ago

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Andrew Jones, Online Marketing Consultant at Maginus

Hi David

Another interesting post !, you raise a lot of good questions about responsive design and the implications.

Point three for me carries the biggest issue, but only through analysis can we define the users behavior.

For me the key element here is testing this will define the best course of action. Like most things will take time and money !

Kind regards

Andy

over 3 years ago

Steve Davies

Steve Davies, CEO at Fitch Media

Hi David, I’ve just completed the third responsive rewrite of our website, since our first responsive site in 2011. Once you’ve worked with some of the many robust frameworks (Bootstrap, Foundation, Boilerplate) there’s really no going back – while there’s a steep learning curve, once you’ve got there it’s much quicker to turn out new sites (from concept through to full-tested and live environments).

I wouldn’t overplay the slow loading time, especially when you design mobile-first. While there may be additional scripts loaded (such as html5shiv), the amount of content (especially image sprites) can be tailored using CSS and javascript. Development time will be shorter, of that I’m certain, although initially higher when first starting out. One of the most common benefits of a responsive workflow is that it pushes the design away from wireframes and photoshop, with design being started using markup (i.e. you build a real prototype rather than saying ‘this is what the prototype will look like’). The time saved by adopting a truly iterative development is not to be underestimated, likewise the benefit of applying client changes to a real website, so nothing gets lost in translation.

Web developers should be catering for different user’s behaviours (responsive or not), so this is not a real overhead.

Advertising is the biggest PITA – it’s simpler to deal with flash based object code (which can be targeting through javascript) than the increasingly common iframe ads, which are inflexible and troublesome. Most sites choose to stack (or hide) ads rather than trying to make them fit the site’s fluid resizing. Add in the nasty habits of interstitials or page takeovers and the headaches multiply.

Scrolling is fully within the designer’s scope, and not a given. Content can be located off-page (and swing open when requested), tabs can be used and/or accordion-type stacking – there’s no excuse for an overly long page that spoils the user experience.

As I say, testing is eventually easier, because the use cases are more consistent between projects. There are also some great tools available, such as Firefox’s Responsive Design View which is build into every browser.

We use large images on our desktop view of the site, most of which have a wide-frame composition, but also detailed close-ups for specific articles. Using one of the modernizr based toolsets it’s pretty straightforward to detect and provide a different image per device, although this is usually a matter of choice rather than necessity.

In our experience, the biggest problems come from third-party content (Ads, Twitter or Facebook widgets) and Internet Explorer which continues to be the browser most developers would put in the Room 101 bin. It seems that whenever web standards advance IE is left behind, causing a train wreck of frustration for anyone that has to work with it.

Repsonsive makes sense for any site where accessibility and a consistent user experience is of value. Ours can be viewed at http://skiddmark.com

over 3 years ago

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Colin Meney

I read point three with interest, especailly this part: "smartphone users are impatient [...] In general they don’t want to be bothered with all the content that one would expect to see on a full desktop site.

I've recently been reading Karen McGrane's book, Content Strategy for Mobile, and she makes a compelling case that mobile sites should offer users the same content as the desktop site, even if it's displayed in a different way. I think we make assumptions about smartphone users' expectations and behaviour at our peril.

For years I hated when a company automatically directed me to a mobile site and I would load the desktop version where possible. I now realise that it wasn't the fact that it was a mobile site that bothered me - it was that so often I couldn't carry out the task I wanted to on the mobile site because it was so pared down.

over 3 years ago

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Avangelist

Ill informed and poorly presented.
None of your points are accurate or fair.

The many people working hard to resolve issues for image resolutions and files sizes do so to help overcome issues that network providers have given us with bad tarriff and bandwidth caps. They are far from 'hacks' - there is nothing to hack.

Slow loading times come down to working with developers who don't know what they're doing (or know yet)

There are in fact HACKS for all that advertising to work on responsive platforms - it isn't our fault as web designers and developers that sales and advertising have failed to keep up with the shift in user engagement, their fault not ours.

I actually don't want to continue correcting you here, this is just piffle.

over 3 years ago

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Karl Hughes

As Steve mentioned, load time doesn't necessarily have to be an issue, especially if your devs know a bit about using Ajax with their queries. With the right methods, you can set a page to load only the primary queries and javascript when viewed on mobile, and more time-intensive queries when the page is viewed on desktop.

I do agree with the ad problem though. If someone figures out how to fix that, they'll be a millionaire.

over 3 years ago

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Jon L

Use the combination of RWD and server side sniffer to optimise memory payload for 3g and smartphones. No loading issues.
Shown that users are happy to scroll on phones.
Very generalist, misleading article.

over 3 years ago

David Moth

David Moth, Editor & Head of Social at EconsultancyStaff

@Steve, thanks for your excellent response. It's great to hear from a site owner who has been using responsive design successfully for several years. Your points about advertising are interesting - would you be up for a more in-depth Q&A? If so, email me at david.moth@econsultancy.com and we'll set something up.

@Colin, personally I don't have the patience to pinch and scroll round desktop sites on my mobile. This is a bit of a generalisation, but mobile visitors tend to exhibit different behaviours to desktop visitors, so it's up to site owners to make sure the relevant content is easily accessible.

@Jon L, as mentioned in the intro, this was meant to be a brief look at some of the possible downsides of RWD in order to start some debate.

over 3 years ago

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Colin Meney

@David, thanks for your reply. I think the best solution is a mobile-friendly site (responsive or otherwise) that has the same content as the desktop site. You mention relevant content - I think if we regard some of our content as of questionable importance it's worth asking if it even needs to be on the desktop site. Karen McGrane advocates using mobile as the lens through which to evaluate your content - it's a good yardstick of whether a piece of content is needed at all.

Many web users now rely solely for internet access, particularly in the developing world and the less well off in developed countries. Restricting content for mobile sites is an accessibility issue in my opinion. However, I'm coming at this as a content strategist in the public sector (where wide engagement is a requirement) rather than as a developer.

over 3 years ago

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kenny shaw

Point one kinda undermines the quality and depth of this article and many of the other points don't really relate to downsides - more things to consider or workaround. For example, progressive enhancement is a solution to point 1 - slow load size/speed and any decent article on responsive should cover this. Development time and resources is a resource issue not a 'downside' since, if you're going from mobile, you'll need resources and responsive may offer the most economic approach.

over 3 years ago

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Colin Meney

@David, I think the aim should be to offer the same content on mobile as on the desktop site. For many users, mobile is their only form of internet access - this is especially true in the developing world and among the less well off in developed nations. For content strategists like me who work in the public sector, reducing content for mobile users means giving them a second-rate experience and potentially excluding an already-marginalised group.

If content isn't deemed relevant to mobile users (who, let's remember, will often be at home or work and not necessarily on the move), we should probably question whether it's needed at all.

over 3 years ago

Thomas Frame

Thomas Frame, Managing Director at Etch UK Ltd.Small Business

all these points can be overcome if done correctly - I suspect the list of negatives would be much longer if you had to now explore the alternatives.

over 3 years ago

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Chuck Augello

Most any technological solution with have "downsides" (inherently every solution has pros and cons), with Responsive Web Design it's important to note that it is not a universal "one-size-fits-all" solution but an option whose benefits may out weigh it's drawbacks as a way of implementing a site across a diverse population of devices. It's worthwhile to consider the points outlined in this post when making a decision, particularly if your application will benefit form the device's native capabilities which don't yet have a tie into the responsive web design technology.

over 3 years ago

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Matt DeLong

Seems like if a site is built well, most of these points are irrelevant. I would argue about more code and testing -- if you had a separate mobile-optimized version of your site, wouldn't that require more code and testing anyways?

over 3 years ago

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