Responsive Design: Not So Simple

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.