There is an expectation that websites should be responsive and work across devices.

However, what does that actually mean and do we all have the same expectations?

Most of the invitations to tender we receive these days request that the site we build will be responsive across multiple devices. In fact, this request is becoming so common that we now build websites using responsive design by default.

It is great to see that our clients are aware of responsive design and recognise that it is a good solution to the plethora of devices people used to access their websites.

Unfortunately, making a website responsive is not black and white. People’s interpretation of what a responsive website is may be different.

It is much like buying a car. Not all cars are alike, even though they have some common characteristics. Neither are all responsive websites equal.

At its most basic level a responsive website responds to the viewport of the device improving readability, but there are many other details that can be interpreted differently.

For example when you ask for a responsive website (or offer to build one for a client) are you anticipating:

  • Optimising images for different devices and connection speeds.
  • Changing navigational position to account for how people hold a mobile device.
  • Restyling links and buttons to be more touch friendly.
  • Ensuring elements like video or data tables resize properly rather than just hiding them.
  • Dynamically resizing fonts to work better at different screen resolutions.
  • Providing retina versions of graphics.

The list could go on.

So when we say we want or will build a responsive website, what do we mean? We need to clearly define our expectations or before long this is going to lead to disputes between client and supplier.

The problem is that all of these different facets of responsive design take additional time. To create a basic responsive site is relatively cheap. To create a good responsive site can be time consuming and therefore expensive.

There is no way we would promise to build a client ‘a website’ without defining specifics. Why then are we happy to promise to build a ‘responsive site’ while leaving the exact nature of what that means rather vague?

Paul Boag

Published 15 July, 2013 by Paul Boag

Digital Strategist Paul Boag is the author of Digital Adaptation and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or his personal blog Boagworld.

29 more posts from this author

You might be interested in

Comments (8)

Save or Cancel
Pete Williams

Pete Williams, Managing Director at Gibe Digital

Totally agree Paul. Client expectation across the whole digital field is at best fuzzy in general and this is particularly apparent when looking at Responsive Design. There seems to be a lot of myths about responsive, really just away to dynamically layout the page to meet the needs of different devices. The time is spent building the various versions and then testing to ensure everything works as it should. Elements that need to be further investigated include content delivery and digital tools, for instance a "customise your own" or any form etc.

about 5 years ago



Although, Responsive design is graceful degradation of Desktop version to support various devices. Still, having your site responsive is pretty important, as more and more people are browsing sites from handheld devices.

I always use some tools like to figure our whether a site is responsive and how it looks on various devices.

about 5 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Hi Paul,

So what is your answer then? How do you define responsive design and do you think that is the most relevant phrase to use?

@Ashish - responsive doesn't necessarily mean desktop to other devices. Some companies are evolving to a touch screen first design approach which is then responsive to desktop. We need to move away from thinking desktop is the holy grail - for some brands, traffic from touch screen is rapidly overtaking and will continue to go further.

For me responsive design is the principle that a site will adapt to suit the browsing environment of the device it is being accessed from. However, there has to be a thorough understanding of the user journey and UX first before you can even contemplate making the design decision.

I think that's where there is the biggest gap in thinking - assuming making a site adapt to fit into a different screen means it is fit for purpose without thinking through how elements like button/link design also need to adapt.

Perhaps mobile optimised is the better phrase as it suggests there is a piece of work to be done on tailoring the experience for mobile devices?


about 5 years ago


Olly Percival, KODIME

Responsive design is a phrase thrown around so often it has almost lost all meaning. I know that when some agencies say 'responsive design' they mean that the homepage will work on mobile; want to register? Forget it.

Depending on the complexity of the site, it is often better to create a dedicated mobile site driven by the same engine. That way, there is no need to compromise on the design of the web in order to suit the mobile.

Also, in a responsive site, assets are still loaded, just hidden or resized etc. In a dedicated site, those assets are not required which makes the load time and use of the site much more user friendly.

about 5 years ago

Phil Raynor

Phil Raynor, Owner at Ecomsult Digital Consultancy

I agree, James. Responsive should be viewed as a philosophy rather than IT tool.

Ultimately, the core principle is to provide the customer/ consumer with the most appropriate (and consistent) brand interface regardless of the device.

Throw in the true omni-channel offering that many brands are striving for and many customers demand and responsive becomes even more important.

Whilst not currently possible for many brands, admittedly, the ultimate in responsive is delivering one brand interface (for store, web, mobile) negating the need for a separate mobile site.

about 5 years ago


Ruth Mac Partlin

Yes, we've been doing 'responsive designs' for nearly two years, and thought we were sorted. As we introduce more interactivity through the use of JavaScript we have run into problems with performance on mobile, particularly mobile phones using old OS and browsers. Just look at mobile access in Google Analytics and see the vast array of browsers and devices, its not possible for us to test for all these, and emulators/simulators are not accurate enough.

We have clients asking what's best practice, but that's a wide open question, and like any development project depends on purpose, audience, and target devices. We are now back to developing mobile websites to cater for lowest denominator phones, optimising content as well as design so as to improve performance for users. We continue to use the responsive approach for desktop and tablets, but taking a mobile first, touch approach.

The problem is we're back to educating the client, with little return or additional budget for projects that require more resources. We can spend hours trying to get a site working on a client phone, only to discover its a setting they've applied to their phone alone. We now think testing will have to go out of house to third parties set up with all the devices and operating system permutations.

The bottom line is that it is so important for the experience to be good for a user on any device, its the cost of meeting this need, or losing the user that has to be weighed up.

about 5 years ago


James Nash

I would say that Responsive Web Design is an approach to building sites that deliver the same content to the broadest possible range of devices by allowing themselves to be rendered in a variety of ways.

The trick of course is to try and make them usable and presentable regardless of the means by which they are accessed. The techniques you list in your article (optimising images, changing navigation position etc.) are simply means to achieve that goal. IMHO, which ones you use should depend entirely on the content and/or functionality your site provides and the needs and expectations of your users.

I would therefore argue that no combination of that list *is* responsive design. However they make up (part of) the toolbox you have at your disposal to achieve responsive design.

about 5 years ago



Good points Paul, but the one thing I find intriguing is why there is this use of phrases like Responsive/adaptive/mobile site in our space.

The facts are that the new viewports that are coming from new devices are just screen sizes; a parameter like an OS or browser, therefore solutions should work across these parameters (and more) in as native a way as possible.

What is different is the Context in which these viewports are used. Many people still make the mistake of trying to cram the full feature set into a small viewport or even into an app yet the context and behaviours that are shown dont require it.

Contextual experience design says it all for me. If multiple viewports are not in your requirements then your missing a trick, and if the research and understanding of the behaviours in these viewports is missing then there is no point in building.

about 5 years ago

Save or Cancel

Enjoying this article?

Get more just like this, delivered to your inbox.

Keep up to date with the latest analysis, inspiration and learning from the Econsultancy blog with our free Digital Pulse newsletter. You will receive a hand-picked digest of the latest and greatest articles, as well as snippets of new market data, best practice guides and trends research.