Why I Hate Responsive Design

Published On June 25, 2012 | By mbalogh | Blog

Advocates of responsive design would have you believe there are a ton of benefits to their silver bullet strategy for web development.  But not unlike snake oil salesmen or snipe hunters there is a reality behind the miracle cure as professional marketers and digital strategists we can’t ignore.  From design, to cost, to content and through technology, here are some of the reasons you won’t catch me recommending responsive design as mobile solution for any serious businesses.

The reasons, mentality, cognitive ability, physical location, etc why people go to a mobile version of a website often differ dramatically than why they go to a full “desktop” version.  Modus Associates’ The Mobile Strategy Guide breaks mobile users into three categories:  those with time to burn between important events, those monitoring or checking for information updates frequently, and those looking for timely information they need right now.  Second screen marketing, for instance, is a new trend which extends the experience of a static media such as television, games, or movies to an interactive device they keep with them while they watch.

So far as their reason for being at your site may differ between channels so should your content, thus rendering the single publishing source of content a convenience for the organization rather than a best practice for its’ customers.  Of course there is always the @media tag to render separate content instances, but then it’s just easier to publish two versions.

Goal of the site
Users may have a different reason for being at your site, and you have a different reason for wanting them there. Do you have revenue streaming advertisements which won’t fit on the mobile site?  Should your core messaging or call to actions change knowing users may be on the go or that your site can be location-aware?  Do your call to actions lead to mobile accessible tools and applications or are users going to get dead-ended when they try to do anything? Ultimately, does the fact that the user is on a mobile device alter your goals in any way?  It should.

Per The Mobile Strategy Guide, mobile users are less likely to complete an entire conversion funnel, such as purchasing a product or signing up for a service. However, they will judge your brand by their initial mobile experience and you may lose conversion visits to your traditional website later if that experience is poor.

Content Strategy
Mobile users, as we’ve established, often have different drivers which means a different content strategy.  You don’t need a digital strategist to tell you that reading the same content though different mediums is a very different experience both in terms of the device and the readers themselves.  When it comes to the device the screen is small and attention spans are short so don’t bury the lead.  Mobile users come to your site and expect results, so give them what they want quickly and simply.

When it comes to content you need to strip down the desktop version to simple, easily consumable chunks.  And design is no different both in simplicity, efficiency, and sheer size of download.  That’s right, those images responsive designers would have you believe are multipurpose need to be re-cut, which also may mean re-approved.

Mobile Accessible?
While you may have a mobile version of your site, the whole thing may not be formatted appropriately for mobile. Being in the Internet application business for over a decade now I’ve written many tools which just wouldn’t make sense on a mobile device. Converting them for mobiles sake wouldn’t do anyone any good as it would only frustrate users.  Conversely, I’ve also built tools which wouldn’t make sense on a desktop.

Mobile is not one size fits all.  In some cases you will have to forgo entire sections or tools because the experience just doesn’t translate to mobile.

There Are Lots of Ways to “Go Mobile”
The decision to go mobile is not one you should take lightly.  Many mobile sites are better off as applications and vice-verse. When your core user base is accessing your site on a mobile device, will the have connectivity or will they be in a hospital without wireless? Are there features of the mobile device (location, camera, sensors) that would enhance the user experience? If the answer to these and other strategic questions is yes you may be selling your organization short by going responsive for all the wrong reasons.

After the glow of responsive tarnishes you may want to consider directing all your mobile traffic to your application similar to LinkedIn.

The Flip Side: RD Advocates List the Following Benefits, Here Is Why They Are Wrong

Though I’ve listed lots of reasons not to use responsive design even I have to agree there are reasons to implement RD.  The three most popular cases made are price, centralized content and maintenance [read price], and speed to market [also read price].  While a case can be made for small companies and bloggers, when it comes to responsive any professional organization should consider the following counter-cases to these often touted benefits.

Of the core benefits of responsive design the accompanying price tag seems to be one of the most attractive.  When it comes to faster you still have to consider the mobile experience and when it comes to updating multichannel content in one place it’s an infrastructure and process problem that can’t be solved with design.

Responsive design is less expensive is basically a lie given there are a ton of places responsive costs more.  Advocates claim double hosting of mobile sites lead to higher maintenance costs but the reality is responsive design isn’t going to solve your infrastructure problem — you can fix that today.  Go out and get a good CMS that can multi-host and centralize your dev and admin teams.

With respect to upfront and build costs responsive is either equivalent or more complex if done well.  If you’ve done your job as a strategist, user experience professional, content strategist, or designer than the mobile version will only vaguely resemble the desktop version. And yes, unfortunately, two designs really is twice the work especially in pharmaceuticals, insurance, or any other heavily regulated industry where everything needs to be approved in context.  Add in the complexity of building and testing one set of designs, code, content, and strategy that can be auto-magically adapted to any channel and those savings start to evaporate.

Beyond the complexity of syncing multiple experiences into a single site build don’t forget the additional costs of forced updates to all channels at every subsequent update.  Just think about the multichannel quality assurance time alone.  How’s that for increasing your maintenance costs?

Once Central Point to Update and Maintain
The single-content source theory of responsive design would have you believe in a publish once, view everywhere model.  This sounds great and, with the proliferation and advancement of content management systems (CMSs) in the last decade, it’s a very attractive offering.  But when it comes to content a good mobile content strategist will really only want to mobilize that which your mobile users will find useful.  If you’re told anything less you should get your money back.

Sure, CMSs with mobile detection can do this but once you start picking and choosing and editing content for mobile aren’t you losing the benefit of the single publisher model?  The rigor required to successfully execute a site which is both responsive and channel-appropriate requires no-one asking, “can we just change that one thing the mobile site?”  Good luck explaining to a non-technical business owner why you can’t make the change in only one place.

Once you’ve invested in responsive that rigor must be maintained to make sure mobile and web don’t diverge.  Look to the future.  Three years down the line where do you see your mobile content vs. your non-mobile content?  Do you plan on introducing tablet, or middle-ground, specific experiences?  Do you foresee “special cases” you’ll have to deal with which will eventually diverge two sites?

If you’re starting to waver on your commitment to maintaining once source everywhere what you need may be a good CMS, not a responsive design.

Speed to Market
The final illegitimate advantage of responsive design leverages the other rationales to the logical conclusion: it’s faster.  After all, if you are only adjusting a design and modifying content then implementing using a single code base it must be faster, right?  As my wise father once told me, “if it sounds too good to be true it probably is”.

As we’ve already established when it comes to strategy, design, copy, development, and even the infrastructure building one site that can act like many is a serious undertaking.  From an operations point of view this means a lot of coordination, meetings, decisions, reviews, and approvals.  Undertaking two channels simultaneously with the targeted goal of a single solution is actually a more complex job than approaching the two independently.  This is a case of 1+1 equaling 3.

Okay, so the initial build requires an investment but future updates are going to go quicker, right?  Wrong again.  Consider the simplest case content only update.  Since responsive utilizes a single source you now have to cross-browser test on every browser and device that exists.  Not exactly the efficiency you were hoping for.  And as the two experiences begin to diverge into sets of “special cases” (you know they will) you’ll one day realize you have a full team of engineers dedicated to maintaining and updating your uber-customized responsive build.

Sure you can pop-up a wordpress site with the WPTouch plug-in and call it a day, but people who would do that are not the audience for this post.  If you’re a professional digital marketer by now you should have realized how much there is to consider, and that’s not a quick process.

The One Legit Benefit
There is one benefit of responsive design I wouldn’t try to contest.  That benefit is the infinite screen size theory of future-proofing your website. With the plethora of non-standardized screen sizes and the recent trend toward skewing the line between laptop and tablet (insert surface reference here) it is hard to predict where the market is going with respect to what device users will be viewing your site through. But taking out insurance against the future never really seemed like a good business model to me anyway so I’ll only give this a small paragraph in the middle of the page.

Email, the Only Real Case For Responsive Design
While I do disagree with the use of responsive on professional websites there is one good place for responsive design which I rarely hear touted as a core strength of the technology — email.  Due to the technical limitations of email: you get one chance to send one version and you have few options for device detection, email is a perfect candidate for responsive design.

Email is a fickle channel many marketers take for granted as an “old” technology.  As digital channels go they may be right, but it doesn’t make it any less relevant or complex in today’s world.  In fact, it’s more so.  comScore’s 2012 Mobile Future in Focus report lists checking email in the top 3 activities performed on a feature or smartphone globally with the U.S. leading the trend only after Japan.

When you blast an email, that’s it, it’s gone. Thereafter, for the most part, your code is subjected to the whims of various filters, servers, and readers before your users even see it.  Unlike your website emails are not served from a central place you control; instead the code is sent out to each and every user.  This paradigm makes it a prime candidate for responsive design — a single code base designed to detect devices and modify itself accordingly, on the fly, with very little post-production control.

So What Should You Take Away From This?
If you just want to setup a blog or want a mobile website utilizing all the benefits of responsive design (faster, cheaper, re-purposes content), but not actually benefiting from mobile as a channel, responsive design may be the right solution for you.

If you are a professional organization that’s serious about your customers mobile experience then it’s something you’ll need to think about and there is no miracle short cut.


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