Responsive design vs. mobile websites: And the winner is...

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Website owners today are confronting the task of adapting to the rise of mobile. Mobile web access is one of the dominating trends of the current internet economy, with many sites now seeing 25 to 30 percent of their traffic on mobile devices. However, most traditional websites experience much lower mobile conversion rates because their design does not work well on smaller screens or slower connections.

Responsive design vs. mobile websites: And the winner is...

Site owners who need to improve their mobile game recognize this means creating a design that is tailored to mobile users. The first step is deciding between building a dedicated mobile site or recoding their main site into a responsive design. This article assesses the pros and cons of using responsive design versus creating a dedicated mobile site.

First, let's clear some confusion from the area. A mobile site is not the same as a mobile app. An app is downloaded onto a smartphone or tablet and lives there. A mobile site is nothing more than a set of webpages that have been designed specifically for mobile (as opposed to desktop) devices. Responsive design occurs when the server sends the same stuff to every device but includes information enabling the device to work out how to display the page on its screen.

 

Comments

Eric Oliver
Eric Oliver June 16, 2014 at 1:00 PM

9) What the author refers to as "adaptive design" is mainly best practices in responsive design. Responsive designers will often use client-side Javascript to detect support for certain features and supply alternatives if that support does not exist. Or will supply different image sizes as needed. And in many situations responsive designers will use server technologies to serve up slightly different content (again, images is a great example)

Don't get me wrong: responsive sites are NOT appropriate in every situation. As the author cites, most of the top-trafficked websites in the world have mobile-dedicated websites. However, most of those websites are complicated web applications whose functionality demands different behaviors on mobile. The reality is that most readers of this article don't have Amazon-level complexity on their websites, and responsive websites will be more appropriate for them. We have built mobile-dedicated sites for our clients in the past and will continue to do so in the future. However, the opinions outlined in this article seem hugely misleading.

To paint responsive sites as a binary, "big budget or poor experience" offering is ignorant at best, misleading at worst. The proper solution (responsive vs. mobile-dedicated) should take into account the desired user experience, technological limitations and opportunities, and client budget (among other things). ALL businesses should consider responsive design as an option: contrary to the author's assertions, very often it saves substantial time and resources while offering an excellent user experience.

Eric Oliver
Eric Oliver June 16, 2014 at 12:58 PM

As a web developer in the business for over 10 years, I disagree strongly with the points made in this article. Specifically:

1) "Responsive design is much more complicated than traditional design or building dedicated mobile sites." Building a completely dedicated mobile site basically doubles the complexity of your site (instead of one site, you now have two). That means building and maintaining two sites. This is not a simple prospect. In my experience, building one responsive website well is less complicated than building two distinct websites well.

2) "The result is a tall, thin column, guaranteeing people never see the bottom two-thirds of the content" This is a fallacy carried over from the "people don't scroll" and "everything is lost beneath the fold" mentality. In actuality, many recent studies have shown that "the fold" is irrelevant and that people scroll on sites without any problem, assuming that the content they see initially is engaging (see http://uxmyths.com/post/654047943/myth-people-dont-scroll and http://blog.kissmetrics.com/why-the-fold-is-a-myth/)

3) "Unless your website is very minimalist, you cannot create a responsive design by simply rearranging the existing elements" This is only true if you're talking about repurposing DESIGN rather than repurposing CONTENT. And no one wants to repurpose design - whether you're building a new mobile site from scratch or developing a responsive site, you'll need to design the mobile look and feel of the site. So assuming that design work needs to be done anyway, you don't save any work by building a completely new mobile site.

4) "Coding responsive design is "bleeding edge" technology. It requires a sophisticated implementation of the very latest CSS techniques" Totally untrue. Media queries (the foundation of responsive design) are supported by all major browsers, including Internet Explorer 9 and above. Internet Explorer 9 was released in 2011 -- it's nearly 3 years old already (and Internet Explorer is now at version 11). Hardly "bleeding edge"

5) "A mobile site doesn't require you to redesign your main site and so could be considerably cheaper than a responsive design that requires a complete rebuild of everything." Again, I disagree. The separate site would still need to be designed, so no work saved there. You don't have to do a complete rebuild of everything, but you need to do a complete BUILD of something new. So again, no work saved - in fact, being able to repurpose code and CMSs already built for the non-mobile site is a time-aver.

6) "In practice, most people find it easier to meet those criteria with a dedicated mobile site rather than a responsive design." According to whom? This is definitely not my experience.

7) "Mobile sites perform better in terms of sales. Typically mobile sites have conversion rates three times better than those using responsive design. This is because mobile sites are almost always faster and better designed for small screens. " There are so many false assumptions in this paragraph it's difficult to know where to start. Responsive sites needn't be slower or poorly designed for small screens. And the author cites figures but provides no citations. I have found no studies that offer any clear metrics on dedicated mobile performing better than responsive. I would love to see them, if they exist.

8) "[Mobile-only features] cannot be done on a responsive design since desktop devices cannot make sense of the click-to-call functionality and lack phone capabilities" So hide the button on desktop but show it on mobile. Or keep it -- many desktop applications (such as Skype) can actually use the links now.

9) What the author refers to as "adaptive design" is mainl