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The Great Design Debate: Responsive or Optimized?

Posted on 4.23.2014

Responsive Web design is a hot topic, but is it the only way to go?

A variety of Internet professionals - all with advanced knowledge of Web design and development and user experience - weighed in on whether businesses should go responsive or create websites optimized for each device individually. Website Magazine asked them to vote for one (responsive or mobile optimized), explain their vote, tell us if there were circumstances when their vote (responsive or mobile optimized) wouldn't be the best use case and explain to us their own approach to the mobile Web at their individual companies. Here's what they had to say.

Brandon Downing, Creative Director at Adage Technologies

Vote: Responsive 

Why? When done right, responsive design is an incredibly powerful way to leverage one code base to deliver an optimized presence to any end-user, regardless of their method of consumption. Also, long-term maintenance is reduced with a responsive web site because you only need to focus on one site and one set of code, as opposed to two.

Are there any cases when your vote wouldn't be the best use-case?

If a client wants a short-term, cheaper solution, a mobile-optimized solution may be a better option. Implementing a responsive solution usually requires more thorough and careful planning, and higher execution and testing on the front-end. But it’s worth it in the long run.

Company Approach: With new devices coming to the market every day, it’s essential to go beyond just targeted breakpoints to achieve a completely fluid user interface. This gives you the best opportunity to provide an optimized experience across the board – one that feels tailored to any user in any viewing environment.

Jay Schwartz, Founder and Chief Creative Officer of IdeaWork Studios, Inc. 

Vote: Mobile optimized 

Why? Responsive is a great idea for grid-based or boxy layouts and templates. The work we do doesn't always conform to that style, and trying to make something responsive that still looks amazing on mobile can be a pain. Further, we're always having to customize the mobile experience regardless, to eliminate image bloat, hide non-essential content, and inject mobile-centric CTAs and swipe actions; mobile-optimized winds up being more efficient to develop as well as a better user experience. 

Are there any cases when your vote wouldn't be the best use-case? 

Only cases where developing mobile optimized would be redundant or unnecessary additional work. Examples are single page sites or temporary/holding pages.

Company Approach: Our approach is that simple is better and we need to understand the context behind why a user would be viewing our clients' sites on mobile, tablet  or desktop, and making sure we deliver the appropriate content. On mobile, we tend to eliminate long forms and replace with a "call us" button, because the user has a phone in their hand and filling out a long webform on an iPhone can be a real pain. We like to use responsive for desktops and tablets, or an adaptable layout because the way things look across devices is critical. 

Tom Bowen, President of Web Site Optimizers

Vote: Responsive (Caveat: While I generally think it depends on the use and needs of the website, if I have to place a vote, it would be Responsive, primarily because Google has stated that they will tend to give preference to those that have a responsive design as opposed to a separate site for mobile users.)

Why? I agree with usability guru Jakob Nielsen that the primary objective is an easy to use experience. How that is accomplished (responsive versus separate mobile site) is more of a delivery mechanism. I don't necessarily agree with arguments like Responsive is just one set of code because that one set of code is really just a collection of different sets of code for different screen sizes. So I don't personally feel that it is that much easier to maintain. I do, however, feel that until I know more about a site, its objectives, and its user base, I would default to Responsive until other issues convince me to change.

Are there any cases when your vote wouldn't be the best use-case?

There are definitely cases where I think Responsive is not necessarily the better choice. For many sites, the kinds of activities a user takes while on a mobile device are significantly different than while on a desktop. For example, desktop users of a bank's website will have a diverse set of objectives including things like looking for credit cards, exploring loan options, and making online transactions. But a smartphone user is much more likely to be doing something like looking for the nearest ATM, transfer funds, or make an electronic deposit. Those functions should be primary, and things that are more desktop based, such as marketing mortgage offers, are best left to the desktop version. So in cases like this, a site optimized for the smartphone is often better. All of that can be done with a Responsive design, but at the expense of a great deal of bandwidth because all of that "hidden" stuff is still downloaded to the phone, causing the site to be slower and users to incur more data charges.

Company Approach: In all cases, we work with the business owner to define the primary objectives of the website-what user actions will contribute to the bottom line most directly, as well as understanding the business's target users. We then develop primary use-case scenarios - click paths that site visitors would typically take to get to those desired objectives, and we look to determine the best ways to present those paths on the most common devices.

Steven Soblo, Web Designer at web2carz.com

Vote: Responsive

Why? Responsive designs are more future proof in comparison to an optimized design.  The emergence of tablets, as well as the diversity of mobile devices, has made it difficult to accommodate for every use case with an optimized setup.  Responsive designs also force simultaneous development for all devices.  When a new page is released it is ready for mobile, tablet and desktop devices alike.

Are there any cases when your vote wouldn't be the best use-case?

Responsive designs are less flexible.  For example, providing a different task flow (like a checkout) for mobile devices.  In that case a responsive design would require detecting if the exact device is mobile and directing those users through a different flow.  Not impossible, but it goes against the basic philosophy that responsive designs are device agnostic.

Company Approach: At this time we have an optimized site. After a significant overhaul to how users browse articles on our site we are positioning ourselves for a redesign to our cross-device support.  Web2Carz has two major components, car shopping and articles.  Our unique challenge is the car shopping side lends itself to an optimized design, while the article side lends itself to a responsive one.

Michael Ripa, Owner of Dash Designs 

Vote: Responsive 

Are there any cases when your vote wouldn't be the best use-case? 

There might be situations when the application needs to work with a hardware device, such as a printer. In those situations, having an exact print preview, for example, might be important. In short, there might specific requirements which might drive design decisions.

Company Approach: We deal with a lot with WordPress sites; for those, we make sure the theme is responsive, and we try out the demo of the theme across various devices first before we decide to utilize it for our own purposes.

David Ciccarelli, Chief Executive Officer of Voices.com

Vote: Responsive 

Are there any cases when your vote wouldn't be the best use-case?

If your organization has yet to move into the mobile space, then getting a mobile site online quickly will be faster than redesigning the site of a large enterprise.  Mobile may be the best use case if it's a micro site and the site has a short shelf life. Otherwise, for long-term planning, responsive design has so many benefits.

Company Approach: We initially started with a mobile optimized site, sometimes referred to as an "m-dot" site.  Ours was located at m.voices.com.  The mobile site was essentially a brochure style site that wasn't dynamic.  Customers couldn't login, nor could they do anything database driven, such as conducting a search, or in our case, posting a job. 

We heard the needs from our customers, which was that they wanted a full-featured mobile experience.  As we evaluated our options, it became obvious that rather than duplicate our efforts, we could deliver what our customers wanted by simply redesigning the front-end user interface.

Now, all our communication is consistent across the desktop, tablet and mobile.  The same goes for the feature set.  Further, offering a consistent look, feel and functionality greatly simplifies our online marketing efforts, sales inquiries and customer service/technical support.  

As cliché as it sounds, our entire approach was to start "mobile first," and greatly simplify what elements would be on-screen.  The intense attention to showing what is absolutely critical, forced us to eliminate, or at least hide, features that offered little value.  Yes, many features that we once thought were important on the desktop were not just eliminated from mobile and tablet view, but we often decided to ditch them from the desktop experience too.

Adopting a minimalist approach to Web design is appreciated by internal (marketing, sales, customer service, developers etc.) and external stakeholders (prospects, customers, partners) alike. 

Responsive design has been one of the best business decisions we've made in the last five years.

Gabriel Shaoolian, CEO of Blue Fountain Media

Vote: Responsive

Why? From my perspective, there's no real question as to which is better. A responsive website is clearly the winner when it comes to SEO, and since SEO is still king, especially for a new site, responsive design is the way to go, hands down.

If that wasn't reason enough, consider the fact that a responsive page is so much easier to maintain. If you manage a separate mobile site, you'll need to update that site, in addition to your primary site, whenever you add content or institute any other change - and a decent, competitive site should typically be updated on a daily basis. With responsive design, one update takes care of it all, so you'll save immeasurable time and resources in the end.

Victoria Lennon, Marketing Director at MintTwist 

Vote: Responsive

Why? Responsive is the most convenient for the user and easier for website owners to maintain. If companies are not moving over to a mobile-friendly design (whether it's responsive or mobile-optimized), then they will get left behind.

Company Approach: We always look at the analytics and behavior of the mobile and tablet users, and advise clients from there. Over the past year we've seen mobile traffic double to clients’ websites and would expect the same trend to continue. Even if the traffic is only accounting for 10-15 percent of traffic, the reality is that figure will only go up and desktop will go down.

Wendell Adams, President of AB Mobile Apps

Vote: Responsive 

Why? With devices varying in size more and more Responsive is a must. You simply cannot create a unique interface for every device. By going with responsive you can ensure someone is getting the same experience no matter what the device. The only time you may want to handle this slightly different is depending upon what kind of e-commerce site you’re running. Amazon for example is somewhat responsive but it also mobile optimized.

When people are on a mobile device they are more action oriented. They want to do something, make a call, email or complete an action. When they go to a website it usually to gather or read information. Keeping that in mind, we like to make sure all action commands are in a place that is convenient and easy to use while all key informational content is blocked in an easy way to read. We also put a very large focus on touch devices and how they work with whatever media they are used on.

Company Approach: Our website is responsive and we like to make all of our clients website responsive. Responsive websites are usually preferred by google as they avoid redirects and make for better user experiences.

Nelly Gretsch, Web designer at SWC Technology Partners

Vote: Responsive

Why? Responsive Design is a better choice for most websites being utilized today. It allows the developer/designer to only maintain one set of code and graphics, streamlining the entire design, development and marketing process. Responsive design also ensures that all users will have a consistent experience, regardless of how they are accessing your site – e.g. smartphone, tablet, desktop, etc. It’s much more difficult to develop optimized sites for each device’s unique resolution and dimensions – a single responsive site that adapts to everyone is the way to go.

Additionally, responsive allows organizations to provide useful and tailored user experiences without the extra maintenance or hassle that comes with optimized sites. However, it is good to keep in mind that optimized sites are not altogether lost. Given the resources and proven demand, they can be a great way to provide that extra touch of personalization and enhanced functionality.

Are there any cases when your vote wouldn't be the best use-case? 

An instance where using an optimized website design is better would be for sites having additional functionality or personalization depending on which device is used. For example, if someone was accessing an e-commerce website and using the checkout, add-ons and different shopping workflows. Also factored into this is the use of geo-targeting – using GPS to enhance your customers’ user experience.

Company Approach: In general, I’d suggest offering a client standard responsive Web design as that will encompass most needs, without complicating budgets or timelines. However, if it’s discovered a more enhanced, tailored feel is desired, the idea of optimized sites might be worth further investigating. 

Bennett Lauber, Chief Experience Officer at The Usability People, LLC

Vote: Neither

Why? Responsive design may be the current ‘fad’ in our field. But, user experience professionals need to do more than cloning existing designs, much like all of the YouTube knock-offs of ‘Gangnam Style.’ User experience and usability people need a framework, or set of principles to ensure that responsive design is more than just a viral trend in interface design.

Universal Design is a well-established approach to solving design problems that leads to solutions for the largest number of people. The goal of Universal Design is not to create a single solution that applies to everyone, but to follow a systematic process that produces appropriate design solutions for specific people, in specific situations.

Company Approach: We design experiences based upon the following:

User: Who is the user and what experiences to they have?

Task: What is the users tasks - not ours?

Device: What device are they using?

Location: Where are they using that device?

Jon Stroz, VP of Marketing at Accella 

Vote: Mobile-Optimized (Caveat: There is no one right way to do it, each option should be looked at for each website project. However, in our experience, we often suggest mobile-optimized.)

Why? There are certainly cases where a responsive design could be a better pick as with all Web design, there is never "one-size fits all" solution. We prefer to go the mobile-optimized route over responsive design as we see users looking for different experiences on a desktop browser versus a tablet and a smartphone. Just as an advertiser would create a TV commercial and then just run the audio portion on the radio as a radio listener, while the same person as a TV viewer, has different ways of taking in information. A mobile user has different ways of absorbing information than someone sitting at a desk or with a laptop propped up on a chair.

Company Approach: Our brand works with each of our clients to understand their business and their users. Who are their users, what are they doing when searching online, and what are they looking for from their website? We find it is best to do some research on their brand, their company and their users, build personas and use cases, review analytics, and bring all of that information together in order to provide a recommendation on how they move forward with the website and their mobile website.

Rebecca Haden, Creative Director of Haden Interactive

Vote: Responsive

Why? Google has made it clear that it prefers responsive, and people increasingly want full control over their Web experience, no matter what device they use. We shouldn't limit their options for interacting with our Web content. Another benefit to responsive design is that it works on bigger screens as well as smaller ones. People who don't use a desktop at home may choose to use a device connected to a TV monitor as well as a mobile device. There are so many possible screen sizes that optimizing for just one (or three) means redesigning sooner. 

Are there any cases when your vote (responsive or mobile-optimized) wouldn't be the best use-case? 

For situations in which we are confident that mobile users have different goals from the desktop users, we might make a different call. For example, a hospital might have strong evidence that desktop users are seeking patient education or making complex decisions about elective surgery, while mobile users are nearly all looking for the emergency room or emergency contact info. In that case, you might create a different experience for mobile -- or you might just instantly offer an app to mobile users. 

Company Approach: Because we're a content-first firm, we think first about the user experience and the content, not about "pages" that will have content dropped in later. Then we determine how to design the site beautifully to optimize the customer journey. It's all about serving the end user and helping our clients meet their goals. 

Will Guthrie, President of Blue Laser Design

Vote: Responsive

Why? Most people and articles online actually consider it the same exact thing. If a client has the additional budget required to create so many custom versions of the same site then it can be done. We would consider that ripping off a client when you can easily use one platform/responsive site, customize the styling and device detection to specify the look and layout on each device. This allows content and information to be edited in one area but display differently on other devices.

Are there any cases when your vote wouldn't be the best use-case? 

No, you can put in additional development with a responsive site to customize the look on each device.

Company Approach: We have a pretty detailed process that starts with discovery meetings to find out the client’s objectives and target audience. We always propose a responsive platform to ensure no matter what the end goal is that the user experience is successful.

Michael Riley, Founder of Simplpost

Vote: Responsive

Why? In my opinion, responsive design is the way of the future. I have completely given up on mobile-optimized websites and have no plans to build any more. 

Responsive design allows you to build one website that works well on any sized screen. It's a huge waste of time to make different versions of one site for multiple devices. It ends up being a never-ending problem to keep up with new devices and their specs. 

At Simplpost we have spent a lot of time perfecting a system that automatically looks great on any device. The key is to not assume what your visitors want or don't want. This will simply lead to frustration. Our goal is to give every visitor the same great content and user experience on any device, as well as not to dumb down or limit it just because they are on a mobile device. 

Mobile first is an important design concept that goes along well with responsive design. More people will be using mobile devices than traditional computers to browse the Internet. It's inevitable. 

Scott Chow, Owner of TheBlogStarter.com

Vote: Responsive 

Why? Responsive designs allow you to reach your customers in a user-friendly way no matter which device they are using.

Are there any cases when your vote wouldn't be the best use-case?

A responsive site gives users the best functionality and increases the chances that they will take the action that you want them to (increased conversion rate). The only reason you shouldn't use a responsive design is if cost is an issue. Responsive designs are typically more costly and difficult to develop, but the improved usability is typically more than worth the cost.

Company Approach: There is no doubt that mobile is the future, and the future is now.  Many website owners think that they can ignore making their site mobile-friendly because mobile is predominately used for browsing instead of buying. Nothing could be further from the truth. Website users who are just browsing today may eventually turn into buyers, but this is predicated on users having a good initial experience when browsing your mobile site. Because of this, I recommend that our clients who are serious about sales or brand reputation be equally serious about making their site work well on any device.

Seshu Madabushi, Founder & CEO of mKonnekt

Vote: Mobile Optimized 

Why? In restaurant industry customers are looking for two main things - viewing the menu and finding directions to the restaurant/calling them. So these two options should be very visible to the customers and what we have seen most of the times is that these are hidden or very hard to find them (including responsive sites as well). Our emphasis is on restaurants, and we have noticed that most of the restaurant owners are very welcoming when we show them the features that come with mobile optimized sites.

Are there any cases when your vote wouldn't be the best use-case?

Given that mobile optimized sites are more or less have the app look and hence feel that mobile optimized sites would be best in any given case.

Company Approach: We identify what exactly the client is trying to convey and given that the client's customers when they come to the mobile site have very few moments of attention we would like to highlight that aspect. From our experience mobile sites are a marketing mechanism and hence have to designed and built with the unique selling proposition of each customer.

Drew Davidson, VP of Design at ÄKTA

Vote: Mobile Optimized

Why? This isn't an easy question to answer, because ultimately, the correct answer is highly dependent upon the business model and the business goals in question. If your business requires users to take a lot of actions on-site, if the process is interactive and requires a lot of technical agility, you should absolutely design and build a mobile-optimized site to ensure that users are getting the best experience on their mobile devices.

If your website is very content-heavy, doesn't require the user to take too many actions to get where they need to be, and is designed to provide users with information and education, then you're better off making your site responsive.

Ultimately, if I absolutely have to pick one: mobile-optimized. You're never going to go wrong if you build a mobile-optimized site, but there are cases where, depending on your business, you could suffer from designing a responsive site.

Are there any cases when your vote wouldn't be the best use-case?

Absolutely; as I said, if your business's website is content- and information-heavy, you don't need to make your life harder by designing an entirely different experience for a mobile-optimized site. It really comes down to whether you want to provide users with an application or with information. For the former, a mobile-optimized side makes most sense; for the latter, a responsive.

Company Approach: Again, it depends on the users in question. We're a product design company, so we design a lot of mobile-optimized sites because that's what makes the most sense for our clients' users. For ourselves, our own website is a marketing site that's intended to give people information about who we are, what we do and why we do it. For us, a responsive site is what makes the most sense.

David Dylan Jessurun, Co-Owner of Mo & Mo

Vote: Responsive 

Why? Responsive seems to be a fad, abused by 'designers' who want to use all the new bells and whistles. Truly responsive means exercising restraint, above all. It is about what the site should accomplish, not the ego of the designer. In general, though, if you have to optimize for a particular delivery medium, you have not grasped the power of online. As far as I'm concerned, people will be browsing websites on their fridges next, and my product should withstand that test. The next iPhone is old in six months, if my customer has to come back to me for an entirely new product in such a timespan; I am not worth my salt.

Oddly, many (read: most) of the so-called 'responsive' sites are not accessible to the non-sighted, which kind of means they are not actually, you know, responsive.

Company Approach: Rather than a seamless [experience across devices], we respect the user's choice of platform, so we do not try to make the experience the same on all devices, but rather focus on ease of use and delivery of the message/accomplishing the task the user came for.


Sound off in the Comments section below! What's your vote? Mobile optimized or responsive Web design?

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