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Is Responsive Web Design Really The Way Forward?

Image by Peter Trimming

Responsive design is the practice of building websites that will automatically adapt their display for whatever device they’re being viewed on. It remains a highly controversial and fiercely debated subject among web design’s chattering classes, with many considering device-specific web design to be the superior option. Joe Heywood weighs up both sides of the argument.

The focus for web design today is creativity, sleek appearance and user-friendly content, all aimed at providing the web user with a better browsing experience.

This direction could be attributed to the explosion of the smartphone on the market. From around 2005 to present, the mobile industry has experienced a meteoric rise in technological advancement, with cameras, video recorders, apps, voice recognition and – Google’s main interest – web surfing.

Studies have shown that nearly three quarters of the world’s population have a mobile phone – or at least access to one – and coupled with a reported 47% rise in smartphone sales from the last quarter of this year, it is clear the mobile industry is enjoying a phenomenal boom.

The sales of iPhones, iPads, Blackberrys (tablet and phone), Samsung Androids and Symbians have all greatly increased over the past two years and they show no signs of stopping.

How Do Mobile Devices Display The Web?

There are two key ways, at the moment, which have been used by various different people. These two very contrasting ways have been at the centre of a great debate between web designers, which we’ll go into more detail in a moment. First though, you’ll need to know the two types of design in question.

Responsive design: As described in a blog post by Pete Wailes, responsive design allows the standard grid layout by HTML to be modified using ID tags in the code to instruct the structure of the site to change, according to the screen size it is being viewed on. As you can see from this practical example, re-sizing your browser window doesn’t affect the user’s experience of the site because it responds to the size of your viewing parameters. So, whether you’re looking at it on a mobile or a 50” TV, you can still see everything.

Device-specific design: Essentially, this means creating a separate URL that is coded to be scaled for a mobile user, showing the best content from the main site in a format that is optimised to the full for a mobile operating system.

These two types of design have been hotly debated for years by web developers and designers, who argue the merits of both mobile designs ferociously.

Usability expert Jakob Nielsen has argued strongly that having a separate site for a mobile is far more advantageous than a responsive design. In short, Nielsen says:

“Good mobile user experience requires a different design than what’s needed to satisfy desktop users. Two designs, two sites, and cross-linking to make it all work.” (Source)

Key components to this idea are cutting content that isn’t core or relevant to a mobile user and enlarging interface elements such as links and buttons to allow for ease of use. This cuts down loading times for those who are on-the-go and want a quick fix of information – which is at the forefront of priorities– and makes site navigation easier.

On the other hand we have Bruce Lawson, a web design expert, who completely disagrees with Nielsen in favour of the responsive design. Lawson raises some interesting arguments in the debate over responsive or non-responsive mobile design, including an example when Tesco released a version of their website back in 2001 for blind users. The site gave them an incredible amount of money and acclaim and many non-blind users were using it too. But there were some problems with it, which Lawson writes:

“However, some blind users weren’t happy. There were special offers on the “normal” Tesco website that weren’t available on the access website. There were advertisements that were similarly unavailable… The vital point is that you never know better than your users what content they want.”  (Source)

Lawson’s point about not knowing what your users want was keenly felt by Tesco who released a statement informing customers of their change in the access website, making it fully integrated with the home page URL and meaning the old site had been removed.

I am inclined to agree with Lawson because a responsive design allows you to accommodate for the different size ranges for mobile operating systems that are currently out there. The screen sizes of an iPad (9.57 inches), a Samsung Galaxy (7 inches) and an iPhone (4 inches) are so different it would be incredibly time-costly and impractical to create websites that suit the screen capabilities of each model of mobile device. And who knows what the future holds for new devices.

Although having a responsive design may mean you do need to consider your website’s design for such contrasting devices, this still won’t be as arduous a task as a non-responsive design.

While Nielsen’s claims that a desktop user’s internet needs are very different to that of a mobile user are true, I do find them to be very generalising and narrow-minded. Web designer and developer Josh Clark had this to say about Nielsen’s arguments:

“There’s a persistent myth that mobile users are always distracted, on the go, ‘info snacking’ in sessions of 10 seconds. That’s certainly part of the mobile experience, but not the whole story.

“Mobile isn’t just ‘mobile’. It’s also the couch, the kitchen, the three-hour layover, all places where we have time and attention to spare. 42 per cent of mobile users say they use it for entertainment when they’re bored. Those aren’t 10-second sessions. That means we shouldn’t design only for stunted sessions or limited use cases.” (Source)

The point made by Clark is a valid one. The mobile user is constantly expecting more from their device so why strip down content for it?

Having a responsive design isn’t all great, though. More code will inevitably mean more updates to keep on top of, the resizing of images will require a lot of memory usage (as the original large file is needed first) and the internet speed of 3G is inferior to that of a broadband connection. In addition, a lot of mobile devices don’t support plug-ins and changes in the HTML script if they’re too major.

Will Mobile have an integral role in Web Design’s Future?

All signs point to the notion that mobile devices will increasingly become important in terms of web design. Sales of the desktop have for the first time been projected to drop in 2012, due to the fact that mobile devices are becoming more sophisticated and diverse function-wise.

In addition, an interesting blog post by Oliver Reichenstein in 2006 created a lot of backlash in the web design field. He introduces his post by saying:

“95% of the information on the web is written language. It is only logical to say that a web designer should get good training in the main discipline of shaping written information, in other words: Typography.” (Source)

Reichenstein’s view, that typography is the main concern and priority for web designers, is both for and against responsive design.

If most websites were set out like his, or at least in the way he feels they should be set out, then there wouldn’t necessarily be any need for a responsive design.

Font image

If sites were to follow Nielsen’s non-responsive argument, their mobile sites could be set out with a font size between 13 and 14 and font types such as Calibri or Georgia, as these two sets of criteria allow for the greatest usability, especially considering if a user is on a crowded bus or walking to work.

However, overall I believe that a responsive design is still the way forward for mobile devices, as the mobile version of a website should be as representative of the full site as possible. If the typography of a full site is set out for maximum usability anyway, then mobile users will benefit as much as desktop users with a responsive design in place.

The variety of models, sizes and brands means that having a responsive design ensures a webpage can be viewed by all devices. There are will be more mobile operating systems than desktops over the next few years, so having a responsive design will future-proof your website.

About The Author: Joe Heywood is a Creative Writing Intern at Strategy Digital. He has learned a great deal about SEO and web design.

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