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I generally find myself in agreement with the authors on Econsultancy, but when I read Ben Davis’ article: 10 websites that aren’t responsive (and probably should be).

I didn't agree with this, as I think those websites aren’t responsive because they don’t need to be.

Responsive design is a wonderful tool and is a great solution for quite a lot of sites. I have used responsive design to deliver many sites, but it’s not a magic bullet that will solve all pains around mobile. 

I believe mobile focused companies like Amazon, Apple and Walmart, that are featured in Ben’s article, are deliberately choosing not to roll out a responsive website because it is not the right option for them.

Think about it… large American enterprises rarely make business decisions without guidance and data to back them up.

If responsive is the way to go, then why have they not done it already? What could they know that others don’t?

Let’s start by making the terminology clear. 

Responsive

A site that will change the content of the page to suit the device it’s being viewed on. You can usually see this in action when you resize the window width of your desktop browser.

Metro.co.uk provides a lovely example of responsive web. 

Metro mobile site

RESS Mobile

RESS is what I treat as the next generation of responsive web using server side components to improve performance  e.g. using a device API and/or server side image resizing.

Smythson.com is a good example of this.

Smythson mobile site

Mobile specific

A dedicated mobile site that serves content specifically for mobile users, which may or may not be similar to the desktop site.

The National Lottery mobile site uses this technique as its weapon of choice.

National Lottery mobile site

Five reasons to choose mobile over responsive

So why would some companies choose mobile specific over responsive? Here are some possible reasons...

Guarding the desktop conversion 

A responsive solution means having to make some compromises on either a desktop or tablet site in order to get the technology to work.

That could be very costly if the desktop site is performing well. A 0.1% drop in desktop conversion rate could potentially cost £100,000s in lost revenue. 

You know the saying ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it… get a mobile specific site’. 

Companies focused on growing mobile conversion 

Mobile conversion is growing but it’s still a long way behind desktop and tablet metrics. The build-test-learn cycle for mobile needs to move faster than the “tried and tested” desktop process that has been honed over the years.

A responsive site by default will tie mobile releases to desktop releases, which can hamper the ability to trade. 

If you want to experiment in mobile, having a mobile specific site will be like having an ultra fast race car to road test the best ways to reach your mobile customers. 

Large amounts of mobile traffic justifies having a dedicated team

Most brands talk about mobile in relative terms i.e. as a percentage of desktop. The argument is that if you are getting 30% of your traffic from mobile, it psychologically warrants less effort than the desktop, which is getting the lion’s share.

In my opinion dismissing the mobile audience like this is wrong, and I hope attitudes change quickly. 

If you are getting a large number of mobile visitors in absolute terms i.e. 100,000’s of users, it makes sense to have a team focused on those users and to optimise for these people directly thereby extracting the maximum value from the traffic. 

Let’s consider Facebook, which has over 1.1bn daily active users, of which 751m are on mobile. 189m users are mobile only and have never used a desktop.

Is it worthwhile having a team and dedicated mobile site catering specifically for those 10% of users who are mobile only? You bet it is. 

facebook mobile website

Performance, performance, performance

Ebay is a perfect example where performance is paramount. If a mobile user submitting a bid gets pipped to the post by a desktop user because of speed, this is a sure way to lose customers and money.

Having a simple stripped down mobile specific site allows Ebay to serve pages lightening fast without the extra weight that responsive gives.

This gives you a fighting chance of approaching the magic 'one second page response time' which Google and us conversion geeks are shooting for. 

I am sure Ebay’s pages per view and dwell time metrics on mobile will reside firmly in the dreams of many a marketer, thanks to its mobile specific site. 

Sites where mobile users have a different journey to desktop users 

‘Location, location, location’ goes the saying and if you have a critical mobile journey, or a drive to store element, then mobile specific is a better way to go.

Mobile users generally have a different agenda to desktop users and are looking for quick information. Macys.com has its store locator prominent on its mobile site but hidden in the footer on the desktop site.

Some other great examples of this are yell.com and the big grocery companies: Walmart, Tesco and Asda who all have mobile specific sites.

Finding the mobile way forward for your own customers 

As someone who works in mobile, creating high converting mobile experiences is something that gets me out of bed every morning.

Mobile is still in its infancy when it comes to building experiences that convert and engage so we’re still discovering, innovating and learning.

Responsive vs mobile specific: a way forward?

In my opinion, it will ultimately be a combination of mobile specific and responsive in a single website that will win out, but we are still a long way from that. 

The message for now is that the only constant in mobile is change.

Learn to love your analytics, build for change, build for experimentation and build for continuous learning.

Most importantly, try to keep up with your customers. 

Grant Kemp

Published 25 February, 2014 by Grant Kemp

Grant Kemp is Omnichannel Manager at Inviqa/ Session Digital and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can follow Grant on Twitter, LinkedIn and Google Plus

1 more post from this author

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Stuart McMillan

Stuart McMillan, Deputy Head of Ecommerce at Schuh

Grant, I'm not sure I agree with your speed reasoning, certainly if you approach responsive in a certain way.

We're very much approaching responsive from a mobile-first point of view, treating the mobile as first class citizen. We're building a site that is everything that you would expect on a mobile site and then allowing that site to expand and re-jig the content to best utilise bigger screens. For us mobile (smartphone) traffic will exceed desktop traffic by July this year (just after the responsive site goes live).

Mobile is shaping customer expectations, the simpler interfaces that mobile specific sites have usually presented have started to filter through to desktop sites. Desktop sites that fit mobile is almost never a good option, but mobile that fits desktop is becoming an increasingly viable option.

over 2 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

Thanks Stuart. How do you deal with things like store locator tools when you're using responsive?

over 2 years ago

Keith Freeman

Keith Freeman, Technical Lead: Frontend & Mobile at Venda

"A responsive site by default will tie mobile releases to desktop releases, which can hamper the ability to trade"

For me tying mobile releases to desktop releases is a good thing. I find it rather frustrating when a feature on one isn't available on the other. It certainly ensures a consistent experience, especially as the mobile users are also the tablet/desktop users.

I realise the whole responsive vs separate site argument tends to elicit strong opinion so thanks for the article!

over 2 years ago

Grant Kemp

Grant Kemp, Omnichannel and Mobile Practice Manager at Inviqa/ Session Digital

@Stuart - that sounds like a interesting and valid approach for you guys to take. I have experience of projects where they have tried similar with some positive and sometimes also some negative results.

By definition when a company optimize's for one platform they could sacrifice advantages on other platforms. The key is really to know where to sacrifice..

As with most projects it comes down to how well its executed.

I personally find that desktop and mobile users have different agendas and time expectations which I am sure you guys have considered.

If you look at how Marks and Spencer and Asos are playing their strategies: they are doing a beautiful shopping destinations with lots of editorial on desktop and more "snacky" type content on mobile which is tougher( but not impossible) to achieve on your mobile for desktop implementation.

As an example- take a look at the scroller aeroplane flourish on asos.com home site. Its such a small detail but really delights and surprises on the desktop.

In short, performance is massively important but so is balancing it with something that will excite and entice shoppers.

It would be great to see Schuh's new responsive site when its ready to come out. It sounds like a really good project with such a strong mobile vision for the future.

over 2 years ago

Stuart McMillan

Stuart McMillan, Deputy Head of Ecommerce at Schuh

@Graham, again we try to offer feature parity, for looking to use geolocation where it is available (almost always on mobile), but then using a polyfill or some sort of degradation where it isn't available (older desktop browsers)

@Grant, we launched a prototype in November, our outlet site, http://www.branch309.co.uk which we've then learnt from for the schuh rebuild. This gives us the luxury of being able to have two complete responsive builds in quick succession, a lot of people don't have that opportunity.

over 2 years ago

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Sarah Hughes

@Grant
I enjoyed your post not least because it provokes a different line of thought to the norm. Mobile and tablet devices are certainly taking more proportion of traffic, but (in some sectors) conversion rates remain stubbornly lower than desktops. Are we buying flights, tickets, music, groceries on our mobiles? For sure. But how many of us are spending our wages on that special outfit or the perfect rug on our mobiles? No matter how brilliant the photography and videos, you just can't see them well enough. Unless the product is a commodity (or incredibly cheap in the sale), I think it highly unlikely that conversion rates on mobiles will ever match those of tablets and desktops no matter how slick the experience.

As you note, consumers have different agendas when they use different devices - I have seen this extensively from my work in the fashion, apparel, GM sectors. Retailers should understand what their customers do on each device type and then create device-specific sites around that. In these sectors, I think responsive design could be a very risky approach because it tries to satisfy all of the people all of the time.

over 2 years ago

Pete Austin

Pete Austin, CINO at Fresh Relevance

Having two versions of your site seems bad for SEO.

Here's a problem that I've had several times, which must cost traffic for brands that have a specialist mobile site:
* I Google for some details of a business,
* Click-through to the page that Google found (on the desktop site),
* The business website redirects me to the home page of its cut-down mobile version, which doesn't show what I want. And I can't see how to find that information easily.
* I leave and try another business

Some sites deal with this by displaying an entry page so I can select which version I want and opt to go to the full site, which is better but still means an extra step whenever I use their site from a tablet. (Also @siteowners, I am never going to download your app unless I use your site several times per day, so stop displaying full-screen modal ads about this!)

On balance, therefore,my vote is for responsive design.

over 2 years ago

Grant Kemp

Grant Kemp, Omnichannel and Mobile Practice Manager at Inviqa/ Session Digital

@Sarah- Great point. Mobile has a conversion problem, which seems insurmountable but the key is understanding where it fits into the purchase cycle. Its possible to get really good conversion improvements by understanding this and catering to it. I am sure going forward new tools and attitudes to mobile will mean people are more comfortable to convert on mobile with minimal extra effort.

@Pete- Google has issued really good guidance on SEO for mobile and supports mobile specific, dynamic serving and responsive design solutions. If more people followed them- responsive or not, it would help their sites massively.
Those 'doorslam' practices you mentioned of the "download this app" splash screen and redirecting people to the homepage are really bad practice and I hope will be consigned to history quickly.
Properly executed mobile specific sites don't have these problems.

Responsive is one way to go but its not the only way. Whichever is best really depends on the project and site.

over 2 years ago

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Ian

Grant

Great article and I agree 100%. I have been involved in web projects etc since 1995 and have seen lots of trends and buzzwords come and go.

Responsive design has its place but I don't always agree with the one size fits all approach that a responsive design sells itself as.

You mention Amazon and I agree that they would have spent a lot of time and research into this subject and if responsive was the best way to go believe me the Amazon website would be responsive. After all they are not the no1 ecommerce retailer in the world for nothing.

The reason when you visit amazon on a mobile device you get a dedicated mobile site is that it has been designed for mobile, its easy to use and the checkout process (which is very important on mobile) is a dream. A desktop visit is a totally different experience and that's why Amazon feel that a dedicated desktop site is the best way to go to maximise sales, after all there is still a lot of customers browsing via laptops etc.

@Stuart I agree that mobile browsing is ever increasing and designing for mobile first is a smart move especially if you don't have the resources to maintain and build device specific sites, but you must ensure that the sales funnel on mobile is quick and easy to use, and whatever you do, do not include the securecode authentication step on mobile or your sales will be affected.

over 2 years ago

Matt Hardy

Matt Hardy, Joint MD & Digital Director at The Real AdventureEnterprise

@Grant - great post - always good to have debate on this as its a hot topic! I'm definitely a fan of responsive, but agree it has its drawbacks, especially as we enter a more diverse connected device landscape (hotly debated on my earlier 'API-first' blog post http://econsultancy.com/blog/64331-thinking-mobile-first-think-again )

@Grant & @Stuart On the speed front, we got some great performance improvements when implementing an 'Informed' responsive approach - device detection to remove the need to download un-necessary page weight to a mobile device. More info here http://www.realadventure.co.uk/web/informed-responsive-design-best-approach-mobile-websites/

@Grant & @Sarah Yes, interesting where mobile fits in to the purchase cycle. I think this is where things like Google's Universal Analytics will help to try and understand how people move from one device to the other throughout the purchase journey...although to tie the journey together across devices relies heavily on knowing a user's identity

over 2 years ago

Stuart McMillan

Stuart McMillan, Deputy Head of Ecommerce at Schuh

@Matt, while your approach sounds good, I prefer the "mobile first" approach which is not about removing things for mobile. It's about starting with the mobile experience and then adding things for larger screens. I would say this is much fairer approach as it recognises the relative bandwidth and processor differences between mobile and desktop.

over 2 years ago

Grant Kemp

Grant Kemp, Omnichannel and Mobile Practice Manager at Inviqa/ Session Digital

@Ian thanks for the vote of confidence. There have been quite a few people that have come out on twitter and linked in saying the same thing- so hopefully it succeeded in making people think about their mobile strategies and approaches.

@Matt- nice work, and I like the term "informed responsive" I mentioned it in the article but maybe should have been clearer. We call that technology RESS- which is "Responsive encompassing Server side" I agree that the performance savings are massive on responsive but still a way off mobile specific. I will check out those posts you shared- thanks.

over 2 years ago

Jon Setty

Jon Setty, Sales Director EMEA at AppNexus Ltd

It's great to see this increasing, healthy debate -- and I don't quite think we'll end up with a "VHS vs. Betamax" situation and ultimate victor (for those of us who remember)!!

My view - as shared on Ben Davis’ post: 10 websites that aren't responsive (and probably should be), is that both approaches are likely to suit different websites (e.g. a news publication where RWD is great / easier to manage vs. a transactional site where a mobile dedicated approach is likely to perform better in terms of Conversion Rate).

Grant and Sarah have echoed this view, adding the valid point about needing to consider the actual products being browsed. Consumers have different agendas when they use different devices and are shopping for different value items, although John Lewis reportedly sold a £7k TV via a smartphone over Christmas!!

I think that the technology used for RWD needs to, and probably will, evolve towards "responsive-adaptive" or RESS, (...and we'll no doubt see more marketing buzz-names for the various approaches as they emerge!). The reason the technology must change is because retailers should aim to create customised experiences for each form factor and use case. This is why a dedicated m.domain should currently be considered to be more suitable for the majority of shopping websites. RWD done cheaply and in its purest sense, will come nowhere close to offering alternative experiences for each device type and so cannot be aligned to the task orientated mobile shopper.
The point is therefore not which technology is used, but whether you invest time and budget in the thinking (and hence the development of several alternative server side templates) in order to create suitably customised use cases. Moreover testing a universal fit design across all devices and screen sizes (without having created specific templates to cover various size thresholds) suddenly becomes a far more costly and time consuming task.

In short, isn’t this is contrary to this age old message that it's easier to "go responsive"?

over 2 years ago

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Deri Jones, CEO at SciVisum.co.uk

I'm with Stuart on this one. Mobile traffic will overtake non-mobile shortly for most sites: and as he said repeatedly: by designing 'mobile first' you ensure those users get the best/fastest experience.

Grant :
> if responsive was the best way to go believe me the Amazon website would be responsive.

Not necessarily - Amazon by virtue of it's size has different rules: eg, the turnover on that site is so huge, the cost hit of having 2 seperate tech teams (mobile, and a not-mobile) is a tiny % of their overheads, so less of a factor: compared to smaller sites where the £ sales per tech-team is lower.

And anyway, for all we know Amazon may be planning on releasing a responsive site soon?

> Responsive is one way to go but its not the only way. Whichever is best really depends on the project and site.

That is true - but it's a truism - replace the word with 'adobe flash' and it's still true!

My one line summary would be: "Mobile-first responsive is in general the best default choice: and don't follow another path unless you have really fully thought through the pros/cons."

over 2 years ago

Stuart McMillan

Stuart McMillan, Deputy Head of Ecommerce at Schuh

@Deri I could hardly agree more! It can be easy to look at big companies such as Amazon and see them as an example of best practice, but really for most of us they are just *too* big to be used as a comparison.

over 2 years ago

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Fertilefrog

This is really a nice post, Thanks !

over 2 years ago

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Jess

Grant,

In regards to your conclusion: "it will ultimately be a combination of mobile specific and responsive in a single website that will win out, but we are still a long way from that."

What about Adobe's new Edge Reflow? From my understanding, edge allows you to responsively design based off media queries of your choice. Which means when you're working on the mobile size you can disable certain desktop features as well as rearrange the locations (like your Macy's example). In this the kind of combination you were talking about or does Edge Reflow not help solve the problem of faster load times, etc?

over 2 years ago

Grant Kemp

Grant Kemp, Omnichannel and Mobile Practice Manager at Inviqa/ Session Digital

@FertileFrog - Cheers for commenting. Delighted you enjoyed the post.

@Deri - Nice one for the thoughts and comments. Its brilliant to be getting such a wide variety of opinions and debate.

its an valid point you say about the size of company being a factor.

If its a good solution for amazon by nature of its massive size, would you say there is a tipping point size for mobile adaptive becomes a viable option as companies increase to massive size. Whats the cut off?

For me I think not necessarily just size. I one of the important factors is the trade off with cost/ benefit/ efforts which is leading the business decisions and obviously the more massive the traffic flowing through the servers, the larger the benefit to be gained.

Its a really interesting point to consider though. Nice one.

over 2 years ago

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Website Development

Nice article, even I think websites should be responsive, as majority of people are using smart phones this days. People need everything handy, so its a best way to meet everyone needs. I would like to share a video on how to develop website responsive in just 10 minutes..

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Yr1ZS4OOl4

over 2 years ago

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Responsive Web Design Testing

RUIT(Responsive UI Testing Tool) is designed to test responsive web design on different device resolutions or screens such as iphone,android,ipad and kindle . This is also a device simulator to test responsive web design.

over 2 years ago

Ashley Friedlein

Ashley Friedlein, Founder, Econsultancy & President, Centaur Marketing at Econsultancy, Centaur MarketingStaff

@Grant

You wrote "A responsive solution means having to make some compromises on either a desktop or tablet site in order to get the technology to work."

Could you elaborate on that? What compromises?

Thanks

Ashley

p.s. I agree with Deri although concede (as he does) that this is only general guidance and there are always exceptions.

over 2 years ago

Grant Kemp

Grant Kemp, Omnichannel and Mobile Practice Manager at Inviqa/ Session Digital

@Ashley - There are design and codes changes that need to be compromised on to make a desktop site work well with responsive. Unless you are looking at using a mobile delivery platform ( eg moovweb) which transforms the desktop content into mobile form factors.

- The responsive implementation will usually entail changes to nav, and satellite content.
- Moving existing content onto grids and changing existing UX structures ( even if they are working well for desktop users. )

Thats without considering the underlying code quality.
Usually desktop markup isn't optimized or flexible enough to retrofit so will usually need to be redone.

On our responsive projects we have used both mobile first and popular device targeting strategies.
If you are worried about the compromises then a potential positive strategy will be to optimize to the devices that are the most popular and highest converting ( like ipads) and then tweak up and down from there. We were asked by customers to do this approach on quite a few projects and it paid off quite nicely for them.

Again it boils down to how well they are executed to make sure that the compromises don't impact on the site negatively.

I hope this makes it clearer?

over 2 years ago

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John

Really great article and your provided responsive sites example are also good. Thanks to enhance the knowledge.

over 2 years ago

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Anja

Maybe Responsive Webdesign is no magic bullet and even not obligatory for every single Website, but it is for the most. And actually it`s the only way to make a Website work on all devices, not only on a few selected Screensizes.

over 2 years ago

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jack Denial, Employ at webresponsivedesigns

Very nice your write about responsive web site. we can learn more from this

over 2 years ago

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