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How responsive design can go wrong

With smartphones set to outnumber people, organizations are increasingly focusing on mobile strategy. Thanks in part to mobile computing, a traditional desktop website is not as effective at attracting business as it once was.

Responsive web design allows your website to adapt to the device's screen size for each user. This means you can create one site that responds to smartphones, tablets, and desktops.

While this new approach to web development may seem like a one-size-fits-all solution for incorporating mobile customers, there are certain limitations and drawbacks to acknowledge. 

Advertisements are not responsive

Advertising revenue from a website is often directly tied to a business's livelihood. For instance, as newspapers have continued to adapt its print offerings to digital, its primary aim is increasing online traffic to attract advertising dollars lost in print. Responsive websites shift webpage elements to adapt to the device, which can mean bad news for advertisers -- as well as the website's owners.

With a responsive site there is a non-trivial chance of an advertiser's banner ad being distorted from the desktop version to the smartphone version. Given that advertisers pay for ad unit placement -- by screen real estate and position -- responsive web design creates a definite issue. 

If you are considering developing a responsive website, you have to be cautious that it doesn't jeopardize your ad-related monetization strategies.

Extra effort for designers and developers

In the same way that Nathaniel Hawthorne meant "easy reading takes damn hard writing," a seamless web experience -- regardless of device type -- takes damn hard designing. Web designers that create a responsive site are effectively increasing their workload, as compared to building a standard web or mobile site.

From the outset of a design, the designers must anticipate the impact of their desktop design choices on the potential reformatting for smartphones and tablets. Rather than create a site only destined for desktop consumption, designers must create a desktop site with the responsive formats in mind. 

Prior to opting for responsive design, also consider that retrofitting an existing website with responsive design is more time consuming than creating a responsive site from the ground up. If your organization is interested in responsive, make sure your resources and time allotment are in congruence.

Sometimes alternatives are superior

Often times, a mobile app or standalone mobile website may be a stronger option than automated reformatting of desktop sites for mobile. Consider how mobile bankers interact with a banking website compared to a user sitting at their desk on a laptop. Issues regarding user experience are crucial -- considering optimal web design should always incorporate user context into the process.

Most likely, mobile bankers want quick and instant access to account balances, nearby branches, and close ATMs. For mobile flyers, Delta Airlines created a mobile site with an emphasis on checking flights as soon as you load the page. Through their analysis of user interaction data, Delta realized the main objective for flyers accessing their mobile site was to check flights, rather than compare flights or manage reward points and miles.

Delivering access to the specific functions your customers and users require is essential. Consider how desktop bankers may be more interested in analyzing their transaction history, scheduling payments, or opening new accounts. Priorities of a user can shift according to device type.

Responsive web design -- at the moment -- does not completely cater to the unique aspects of using different devices for different reasons. To prove this point, simply head to a responsive site on your desktop and resize the browser window. What you will see is a shift in dimensions and page elements of a website according to the screen size, not adaptation to user context.

Are you considering a responsive redesign of your existing website? Or are you building a new site and want to incorporate responsive from the get go?  Please share your own concerns and experiences -- positive or negative -- below.

Prasant Varghese is a technical analyst at Icreon Tech.

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Prasant Varghese is a technical analyst at Icreon. He works with clients from design and discovery through to successful implementation.  Prasant has a strong focus on mobile and has managed multiple mobile projects, with a specialization in...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Emily Weeks

2013, July 31

Very interesting points. With responsive design becoming so popular, it's important to acknowledge not only its advantages, but to be realistic and recognize its flaws before implementation. Thanks for the tips.

Commenter: Nate White

2013, July 31

Very true, I didn't think about the budget multiplier aspect of it. Good luck pitching those 150k add-ons! ;o)

Commenter: Prasant Varghese

2013, July 31

Nate, great points all around – couldn't agree more. We work as an enterprise web and software development firm, and I was speaking about projects where budgets can be constraints. To put it simply, let's use the 1.5x conversion you proposed: if I'm building a site and a developer says it will cost 15K as opposed to 10K to add responsive, I'd have no problems with it. But as projects get more complex and the functionality of an enterprise application is estimated at 300K, all of a sudden, adding responsive for an extra 150K becomes a major talking point.

Long term, responsive design seems like a no-brainer, until, like with all other things, budgets & company logistics get involved. However, Iike you, we believe it's a great future proof method to use if businesses are able to take the time and resources to complete it

Commenter: Mic Tatlow

2013, July 30

I am looking for a VIDEO CMS a YouTube clone for a client and it's tough to find one that has responsive design and also that is affordable. The sticky point for the client is the cost of a server they didn't fathom into the package.
Can anyone suggest a good You Tube clone with responsive design I can purchase?

Commenter: Ben Kruse

2013, July 30

I've designed and developed several responsive sites and even though there is a bit more work involved I think the pay off is worth it. Plus even if you design a separate mobile site is it Android optimized, iPhone optimized, small tablet, large tablet? So really you end up either a) adding variations for different platforms or b) making the mobile site have some level of responsive or adaptive design. So the level of work is about the same if you're adding mobile period. That being said it does depend on the goal and content of the site and for now ads can be a problem, but I think solutions will be found as responsive evolves.

P.S. One interesting quark I've found is when a client wants an update to a responsive site and you have make sure that it works through all the css breaks.

Commenter: Nate White

2013, July 30

I have to question your "extra effort" section for some circumstances. I agree with your point on the surface: Creating a responsive website will be more work than creating a normal desktop website. I feel that's an apples to oranges comparison, though. A responsive site takes the place of at least 2 sites: desktop and mobile. If creating a responsive site takes 1.5 times the effort, that would be less than the 2x effort needed for 2 sites. What if a company wanted a custom experience for tablets? I would think that would be accomplished easier by adding to your responsive code vs. a creating a completely new tablet site. What about future devices such as large TV formats or smaller formats like watches or something nobody is thinking about right now? Obviously nothing is this cut and dry, but it's my personal opinion that responsive sites allow for greater agility in an ever-changing digital landscape.