Responsive Design: When One Size Does Not Fit All

by , Feb 22, 2013, 8:25 AM
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During 2012, a new buzzword gained currency among designers, programmers, brands and journalists: “Responsive Design.” This emerging design philosophy enables brands to design effective, optimized Internet experiences regardless of the size of the screen or the nature of the device. Responsive design essentially takes a “regular” Internet experience and fits it into practically any device with a full browser.

Internet experience solutions like responsive design are being considered because of two global trends:  First, the number of devices connected to the Internet will grow from 6 billion today to over 10 billion by 2016, according to Cisco. In other words, more devices will connect to the Internet than there are people on earth, which today stands at 7.2 billion.

Second, the types of devices that connect to the Internet continue to expand. We are used to talking about PCs, smartphones and tablets as the typical devices that connect to the Internet -- but television sets, terminals on refrigerators, watches, sunglasses, and practically anything with the potential for a chip and antenna will have Internet connectivity in the years to come.

And this is why the current solutions of creating “templates” for the different access points will not be as effective going forward. Today it is manageable to use templates to create an optimized mobile Web experience for an iPhone, an Android or a PC. But as the range of devices increase, the proliferation of screen sizes, device types and usage scenarios means brands will have a more difficult time managing so many templates.

All this being said, responsive design is not a panacea. It is important to understand when this approach does or does not make sense for a brand. Here are a few instances when it does make sense to consider responsive design when creating relevant user experiences:

  1. A consistent Web experience is desired no matter what device is being used to access it.
  2. The Web experience and design objectives lean toward content and marketing and less on ecommerce or business transactions. “Content” includes product information, news, blogs and marketing materials.
  3. Visitors consistently carry out the same behavior and activities on the Web experience regardless of the device.
  4. Desire to improve SEO. Responsive design allows incoming traffic across all touchpoints to be directed to a single URL, enabling higher link equity. 

Conversely, there are occasions when responsive design does not make sense:

  1. Unique mobile experiences are preferred. In other words, the native capabilities of a device are required for an experience, such as use of the camera or GPS. 
  2. Limited budget is available. Responsive design remains in its infancy, so standardized frameworks, libraries and patterns are lacking. This means some teams may have a steep learning curve. 
  3. No performance impact will be tolerated. The same amount of content, images, HTML and CSS code delivered across desktops (higher memory and processing power) must be sent to a mobile device (limited bandwidth capacity), leading to potential performance bottlenecks.
  4. Responsive design may not always work on older browsers that do not support HTML5. 

When considering responsive design, avoid the temptation to “design to respond.” In this scenario, a team decides to adopt responsive design even before the idea is conceptualized or desired customer journeys are created. The decision factor here tends to be based purely on the number of devices, ignoring the design and functional gulf that may exist between the desktop and mobile versions of a site. A better approach is to “respond to a design.” This scenario considers responsive design as one option for consideration to create an optimized and relevant user experience.

One thing is for certain -- responsive design is here to stay. And as more standards and more devices emerge, the need for responsive design will only continue to grow.

2 comments on "Responsive Design: When One Size Does Not Fit All".

  1. Chris Abbott from DetectRight Limited
    commented on: February 27, 2013 at 9:13 a.m.
    Good points, but who says that separate portals shouldn't also be responsive? I have heard tell of a newer buzzword: Adaptive Web Design. That is, responsive templates for broad classes of device. The reflexive, almost emotional backlash towards multiple portals seems to be driven more by their poor execution in the past than a proper consideration of their merits. A point I think hasn't been made is that the experience the consumer wants from a website will be markedly different on a small screen _while the person is mobile_: it's a different use case. In this situation, the problem is customers who need contextually different interfaces with your business. This is a design and business issue, not a technical one. So the issue for me isn't about responsiveness vs multiple experiences: the consumer will always get multiple experiences, even for non-responsive sites or non-adaptive sites, as the hardware they use will impose different limitations. The issue is whether what they experience delivers on expectations, and whether it's technically competent and maintainable. A Responsive site which tries to do too much ends up a mess of unoptimized content and CSS. To my mind, (1), (3) and (4) in your list are pretty much killer reasons why responsive design should not be used to present a "one-website-for-everyone" site. However, it's entirely appropriate to use responsive design if the site is already targeted properly at its use case, or if it degrades gracefully.
  2. Chris Abbott from DetectRight Limited
    commented on: February 27, 2013 at 9:17 a.m.
    I did write that comment above with paragraphs, btw.

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