Responsive Design: Not So Simple

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By Mike DiMarco, Director of Media for FiddleFly, Inc.

Sometimes, a good idea on paper can blossom into a great idea in practice. Other times however, a seemingly great idea on paper can quickly turn into a wastebasket full of unexpected and unnecessary frustration. Such can be the case for those who decide to build a responsive website for their business.

If you’re not familiar with responsive Web design, it is at its most basic a website that is coded to reformat to fit whatever device screen it is being viewed on. While this may seem like a no-brainer solution, responsive design poses quite a few more hassles than it may at first seem.

Before we dig into the little (and a few rather large) things that have people pulling their hair out over their responsive sites, let’s take a second to acknowledge some real benefits. Of course the most obvious upside would be the necessity to build only one site versus building a site for desktop and a site for mobile. On top of this, responsive design only calls for one set of code, so redirects and links are much easier to organize and sync. With many users accessing a site from different devices, having a single site that is consistent can help streamline branding as well.

While all of this may seem like Web design Nirvana, it’s time for the bad news. Simply put, different features are more appropriate for different devices.

Responsive sites can be formatted to include or exclude certain content based on what device they are being viewed on, however the actual content itself remains the same. This means to build an ideal responsive site, designers need to build with mobile in mind first and then work around it. This mindset makes for great mobile versions of responsive sites, but can restrict the creative license designers allow themselves for desktop versions.

Another major issue with responsive design is that mobile users and desktop users have very different needs to consider. While desktop users may be researching your business and comparing prices or features, mobile users are more likely to be looking for things like directions or quick product information. As we mentioned, sites can be designed to show certain features depending on device. Designing specific sites for each platform however, allows for much more efficient and user-friendly versions of each versus a responsive site where small sacrifices must be made in both directions.

This is all by the way assuming that the responsive coding is done properly. Sure we could make this argument for any element that is not executed well, but responsive coding is simply much more difficult than most endeavors and often ends up not fully developed. There are plenty of developers out there doing responsive design, but unfortunately not a whole lot doing it well which is why we see far too often sites with images and text rendering on top of one another, or loading improperly due to a few misplaced lines of code.

If you are just starting a new business and intend to build a very simple site with little content, responsive may be the way to go. However for those businesses that already have a desktop site, redesigning it to be responsive can be very expensive and difficult. Beyond the restructuring that must be done to build a new site with mobile in mind, re-coding the entire thing brings a whole new set of complications.

Responsive sites not only suffer from stunted design creativity, they can also negatively impact your site’s SEO status. Building a separate site for mobile allows you to incorporate a whole new set of information, which in turn gives search engines more material to work with. When building responsive sites, the more content you include the more you risk slowing down or cluttering the mobile version of your site, whereas building two separate sites gives you the ability to incorporate more diverse material without losing any features on either version.

Now, I know some of you may be thinking we’re a bit biased on this whole responsive vs. mobile debate, and the truth is we are, but for a good reason. While we love the idea of responsive design, we see that there are far too many holes in it to be considered the be-all-end-all solution many people think it is. The much more practical implementation of responsive design is to use it in concert with mobile design. Build things like splash pages or individual campaigns to be responsive while your permanent endeavors all have fully specified versions built.

Businesses that are not looking to include dynamic media content, or simply need an informational site for reference purposes, can see great benefits in responsive design, while businesses that rely on more intricate or interactive web designs will see far better results by developing for individual platforms (e.g., desktop, mobile, tablet).

So, if you are among the many few who have the resources and the talent on hand to create responsive, intelligent sites then I say congrats. To the far more of you that aren’t looking to take the huge gamble that your responsive efforts don’t turn into a lingering frustration that will have you starting over again and again, it may be time to look into building for mobile.

About the Author

Mike DiMarco is the Director of Media for FiddleFly, Inc. He has been writing for publications around the Web, as well as film, television and print since 2006. Since 2011, his work has focused on researching and writing about the mobile Web.


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JohnP 01-31-2013 3:34 PM

Couldn't disagree more. There are hundreds of very customizable templates that respond well to any size device while furnishing the needs of a beautiful desktop solution. Separate versions divide SEO efforts as Google as pointed out in a number of public statements. Companies not addressing the trend to mobile devices - complete with a functional website - are going to pay a major price.

JudyB 01-31-2013 3:51 PM

Mike - You have either been a fly in my office (or I have been one in yours) because you have paraphrased my exact words.  I realize you are speaking from your perspective that you specialize in mobile sites but I specialize in customized (no templates) search-engine-ready website development. I first look at the needs of the client before embarking on a responsive design vs. a separate mobile site and I could not agree with you more. Plus,  working on the mobile sites have been so much fun and cheaper for most of my clients!

TimothyC 01-31-2013 3:52 PM

As the range of screen sizes and resolutions are in continual flux (has anyone considered 4K connected TV yet?)  unless your site commands unlimited resources and budget, RWD ,is the only way forward. What we need are plug-ins to our site development toolkit that understands this, and build/evolve appropriate tools.

Bootstrap anyone?

ChrisG 01-31-2013 3:59 PM

I agree with John P.

The big thing I fear is having to redesign responsive websites when newer technologies come about.

RobinM 01-31-2013 5:08 PM

Wow, all I can say is you must be only looking at a true template site. We build custom sites and we don't sacrifice either the desktop or the smartphone (or anything inbetween). As John P said, you don't want to divide your SEO and we maintain the branding for our clients.

Since we use WordPress as our CMS,  anyone can "reskin" the site. Of course to assure it maintains the responsive design the designer will have to understand the programming that goes along with responsive design....

Jack Kennard 01-31-2013 5:20 PM

Nice view, "sites not only suffer from stunted design creativity, they can also negatively impact your site’s SEO status" , like any web site who are you making it for? If you are trying to get information across to others being device flexible is necessary. If you're showing off a stunning graphic design the web may not be the way to present your image because of color or screen variations.

Your view on creating a new site for seo purposes is not well thought out.  Search engines (se) have paid a lot of money for to be part of a phone's se choice and they don't like duplication. If you do your coding & seo right the first time, your covered.

The w3c has gone to great lengths and much pain to set a standard coding that works on all sizes and devices. If you're an company that wants to present new information you don't want to  have a website for each device or screen size, it is much easier to have one site that works on many devices.

I'm still believe people are looking for information like OJ(am a dating myself) is running through the airport to catch that plane. The design should be a compliment to the information, not design for design's sake.

ToddW 01-31-2013 8:20 PM

"We build custom sites" - not if you're using WordPress, you're just using CSS to style someone else's work.  And then you use add-ons to add custom functionality.  Do you even have a programmer on your staff?

DavidO 02-01-2013 6:19 AM

During the last several weeks, I've spent a lot of time researching and working with different responsive frameworks - all in order to redesign my real estate website so that potential customers and clients would all have access to all of the website - no matter what device they were using.

I don't agree with your assessment - I had two separate sites and it just wasn't the same. Mobile users are not just using sites in a narrow fashion, many times they are looking for real information which requires access to all that a site has to offer.

As far as resources go - I'm the designer, developer, research go-to-person, business owner, and the real estate agent who owns the site. It doesn't take a lot of resources, but it does require reading up on the field, then trying it on for size - to see what works best for you or your clients' websites.

GregV 02-01-2013 12:28 PM

#1 - I do not agree with this article at all. Many of my clients are requesting flexible websites. Consumers connect to the web via mobile devices more than ever. Creating a responsive website can be easy or it can be hard. It all depends on the skills of the designer and the techniques they use. It may me require a little more effort but if that's what the customers wants then you make it happen. Besides when you have a responsive web site it makes everything easier. You don't have special websites or apps to worry about. All the info is in one spot. This ensures accuracy and makes the website very convenient.

#2 - You can build custom websites with Wordpress or Joomla. Also if you are using a template purchased elsewhere then you "customize" it to make it work for your customer. My clients love the convenience of sites powered by content management systems. It doesn't matter if you build a sitte from scratch or customize a template you still use CSS unless your living in the stone age.

DavidG 02-01-2013 3:09 PM

Very disappointing, this is a very doom and gloom view of the potential of responsive and adaptive design.

Michael Martin 02-01-2013 5:52 PM

Hence why dynamic serving allows the optimal Mobile SEO since its serves different HTML (TItle Tag, Meta, Content, Presentation) based on the device while rendering under the same accordance to Google's guidelines.

I go into further detail within my Search Engine Land Mobile columns

MarioG 02-02-2013 1:35 PM

Technology has an never ending expanding core and being human, when we are hit by one of those waves, our nature is to resist change.  If you are a designer, developer or a business owner creating a website and not implementing support for all devices, then your web presence will be lost.  Statistics tell us that mobile and tablet devices outrank desktop devices as a user choice for browsing the web. No matter how great we think a design is, it an always be better and a responsive redesign of a website does not have to be expensive when using the right tools.  As someone mentioned in the near future we will need to deliver information on large screen TVs but mobile devices are what attracts users to your product or services.  An aging population will surely require the larger screen experience but current era mobile users have already been trained on quick methods to find and research information on your company, products and services.  It makes no sense to alienate that revenue stream.

JeffS 02-06-2013 2:01 PM

Thanks for this. I'll be sharing it with clients to help explain the pros and cons, and also help deliver the point that it's really about User Experience. I appreciate your idea about a mix: splash/campaign pages vs other content. I'm confused by the negative comments however, and the need to 'defend' responsive design based on what you wrote.

"While we love the idea of responsive design, we see that there are far too many holes in it to be considered the be-all-end-all solution many people think it is."

What's not fair about that?

Knee-jerk reactions that neither a)make a *relevant* argument or b)contribute to evolving the discussion, resemble evangelism.

SN 02-06-2013 4:46 PM

Like JeffS, I don't know why people are defending responsive design.  As you say, it just isn't the silver bullet some people think it is.  It is more time consuming to consider the different audience, context and needs - for smartphones vs desktop in particular.  So if you - or rather your client, has the the resources (meaning: will pay you) to do it properly, excellent.  But there are a lot of people saying it's mandatory - clearly they are not working with small business with limited budgets and limited capacity or tolerance for complex design decisions. Anyone remember liquid layouts? That was all the rage for a while until people realised that it was harder than it looked and often resulted in sites that didn't work consistently.

I agree with Mike.

KenM 02-06-2013 10:53 PM

Seems like there is always a big wave of interest at the beginning of any new technology until it really gets field tested by the early adopters and then either eventually gets better or dies out.  The problem with responsive design is that it is still depends on the complexity of the design, and once again we get back to thinking in terms of templates, not what really works for the client and for their audience.  For sure you cant make blanket statements that it works with any device and it conforms to any screen size / browser combination.  So then how can you call it responsive. It should really be just called a design technique and not raised to the level of framework or solution for your web presence.

Web Design Firm 03-11-2013 3:06 PM

Mike I agree with you too. I love responsive design but it is a balancing act. It can limit you in some ways like a large fixed horizontal image can void the responsiveness of the grid.

How To Fix Print Spooler Errors 01-25-2015 5:27 PM

I'm thinking about making my current theme responsive, but it doesn't seem worth the hassle, because of the amount of changes I will have to do. The alternative is just to migrate over to a new theme, which is mobile ready. That's what I'll likely do, a year or two from now.

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