Controversy brewing over responsive Web design
By Rimma Kats
September 21, 2012
REI used responsive design for a strong mobile email experience
There is an ongoing love/hate relationship with response Web design. Although the technology offers marketers many opportunities, not all consumer behavior is the same and specific functionality should be dovetailed for individual device and user interaction mediums.
Nowadays, marketers blindly take units that have been put together for a specific screen size and realign things to fit. However, many industry experts believe that this is not the right approach.
“The premise of responsive design is certainly a good one, at least at first glance,” said Wilson Kerr, vice president of business development and sales at Unbound Commerce, Boston. “A single site that rebuilds itself for all devices sounds like a good idea.
“However, as mobile commerce and tablet commerce and desktop commerce expand and differentiate themselves, it is clear that providing different experiences is not a negative,” he said.
“In fact it can mean a greater conversion rates, because it allows the experience to be dovetailed to the user behavior.”
Pros and cons
According to Mr. Kerr, the biggest negative of responsive design is page load speed.
A stylesheet site loads essentially the same content for all user experience formats, just repurposed for a different device.
“Third-party service Marlin Mobile recently rated an integrated mobile commerce site as six times faster than a comparative stylesheet mobile commerce site,” Mr. Kerr said.
“As marketers and retailers and brands learn what consumers are buying through what channels and why and when and how much, it is emerging that how content is delivered is very important and should be unique for each device channel,” he said.
“How often have you seen someone shopping with a tablet in their back pocket? So why would you deliver the same content to a tablet commerce site as you would to a mobile commerce site, if the user experience with that site is contextually completely different?”
Responsive design offers companies an opportunity to create compelling experiences across any digital screen and can be a smart move for many companies.
However, like any other technology, it needs to be balanced against business and user experience goals.
“In many ways this is a very elegant solution, users get a more consistent experience across devices and can be a great driver for ensuring companies think through all the user experience and communication items across those screens,” said Russ Whitman, chief strategy officer at Radio Interactive, Seattle.
“In the past, many companies have chosen to either not create a mobile only version of their site or didn't give the mobile version the same care and effort to present a great experience,” he said.
“However, it’s not easy and requires great communication between design, the developer and the business team and more design iteration up front to pull off well.
“Some companies that wish to manage their site analytics and content strategy by separating the mobile version from the desktop will have increased challenges and important business decisions they need make before going down this path.”
From an interactive design perspective, responsive design also creates challenges in how marketers need to plan their experience.
“For example, hover states are lost in a ‘touch’ interface on a mobile device, so you lose that type of presentation in a responsive design,” Mr. Whitman said.
“In our opinion, responsive design is one of many viable approaches for companies to present content online, it creates opportunity in many cases, but has limits,” he said.
“Our recommendation is to understand the site's goals, users and needs around technology support going forward to make the best choice in choosing a method.”
According to Randy Ferree, senior account mananger at SiteMinis, responsive design is better than not offering any sort of mobile-optimized experience. However, responsive design is a temporary, half-baked response to a bigger problem.
"The problem is that companies don’t have a way to create and deploy custom mobile content that works across the ever-expanding array of mobile phones in a way that is fast, cost effective, and doesn’t require coding knowledge," Mr. Ferree said. "This is why mobile has remained a technical part of companies’ under the responsibility of IT opposed to a tool that is consistently used by marketing personnel to serve and acquire customers.
"Marketers know that their ability to create and deploy engaging mobile content that’s available to their customers when they need it is becoming more important to their bottom line every day," he said. "The fact that they are looking at responsive design doesn’t make them lazy.
"Although mobile is big, it’s also relatively new, and for now, responsive design is a way of throwing marketers a life line."
Many industry experts believe that marketers can use responsive design as a starting point.
"It is a smart move," said Patrick Emmons, director of professional services at Adage Technologies. Whether or not it is the only move is the question.
"It is easy and safe and guarantees a modicum of accessibility if you don’t have resources to invest in platform specific design," he said. "But if you have the resources to invest in specific platforms such as the Linkedin app on iPad, then you can make a case for ROI."
Rimma Kats is associate editor on Mobile Marketer, New York
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