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Should you invest in a responsive website?

With the rise in mobile traffic many clients are coming round to the idea that having a website that works well on mobile is now more than a nicety, it’s a necessity.
By Simon Latham
20th July 2012
To put some kind of context on this, a recent study by Pingdom found the UK had the highest share of mobile traffic (as part of total web traffic) in Europe at 10.71%.

For some of us over 30, it is worth noting that some users have only ever used a mobile device or tablet to access the internet.

The introduction of 10" tablets (mainly iPads), 7" tablets (Amazon Fire, Google Nexus 7 etc) and web TVs (26" to 50") as well as smart phones means the design challenge is now how to provide the best User Experience not just on mobile, but across all these devices. 

The debate has been raging recently over dedicated mobile sites vs responsive designs.

Two ways to do mobile

A mobile site is usually one that is optimised to work on small devices, it will work on a desktop browser but would not be optimised for that size of screen. Features and content are usually cut from what is available on the full desktop site. 

A responsive design adapts for whatever size device the user is viewing the site in and allows access to most (if not all) content and features.

The recent debate centred around Jakob Nielsen's article Mobile Site vs Full Site from April 2012 (http://www.useit.com/alertbox/mobile-vs-full-sites.html) and his conclusion organisations should Build a separate mobile-optimized site (or mobile site) if you can afford it. 

He explains his analysis as follows:

  • For the vast majority of tasks, mobile users will get a vastly better user experience from a well-designed mobile site than from the full site.
  • For a small minority of tasks, mobile users will be slightly delayed by the extra click to the full site.

This had some responsive design advocates up in arms - they argued that cutting content and features relegated mobile users to second-class citizens. Also maintaining two versions of content could create "a content strategy nightmare". To some it seems, building a dedicated mobile site and separate desktop site is a step backwards.


A case-by-case basis

We're currently rebuilding a large site that has lots of legacy content - we decided in the circumstances to design and build a responsive site that could display the same content in a manner optimised for smart phones. The navigation in this context is minimal but still allows 3.5" screen users to move around the site easily.

On bigger devices drop-down navigation is utilised (great for desktop). On even bigger screens we are considering displaying more content if appropriate.

The big advantage in this case is we can utilise the same version of the content - so the client only has to maintain one version (which is great as it's available in 10 languages!) and it works well across a range of screen sizes. Video will be loaded from YouTube so is automatically optimised to work across multiple devices as well. Flash content has been redesigned as HTML (as Flash does not load on iOS devices of course).

Would we ever consider producing a mobile (only version) of a site? Well yes if it’s appropriate - we have had great success with a mobile version of a hotel site - it has greatly cut down content, and is designed to allow easy location and contact of the hotel, checking of rates and special offers as its primary objectives. We may roll this site into a future responsive version of the site - but we'll need to take care that the mobile experience is as good on the new version of the site as it currently is for mobile users.

As the question whether you should invest in a responsive site? - the answer is yes, if this is the most effective way to deliver the best UX to your wide range of users. We’re now well into a post-PC era and website design needs to adapt to these challenges. 

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