Yesterday, I came across a blog post which caught me off guard. The title of the post is “5 Reasons Why Responsive Design Is Not Worth It” and surprisingly, it wasn’t satire. It was a completely genuine article explaining why websites shouldn’t incorporate responsive design. The author presented five main points about why responsive design isn’t worth it:
- It defeats user expectation
- It costs more and takes longer
- Non-responsive designs usually work
- There is often no load time benefit
- It’s often a compromise
As I read the article, I honestly tried to stay positive. I tried not to argue, shout at my monitor, or be cynical but I failed at all three. I disagree with all points the original post made and here is why.
1. It fulfills user expectation
When I visit a website on my iPhone or iPad, I expect the information to be presented in a way which causes me the least amount of effort to consume. In other words, I want to get what I want with the least amount of effort, i.e. I am a lazy consumer. I would guesstimate a large majority of the human population are also lazy consumers. What does that mean? It means I don’t want to pull up a website designed for a 15″+ display on a four inch display and stumble my way through pitching, zooming and swiping, just so I can read a couple of articles. Let’s look at an example, Hacker News. When I visit Hacker News on my iPhone, I am presented with a website which was designed and developed with a desktop browser in mind. Even though the text is nice and crisp on my retina iPhone, I have to hold the phone about 6″ from my face to be able to read the text in it’s normal state and after about fifteen minutes my eyes are nice and tired from the strain. Granted, that’s also on a retina display. What about the users who have a smartphone with a display of a lower resolution?
The solution to this problem is zooming in the website. That’s great, it works but it also presents a major problem. I now have to swipe the page left and right to be able to read comments. From a user experience point of view, this isn’t good. This isn’t good at all. The user is lazy and the user wants to obtain the content with the least amount of effort and in the least amount of time. Hacker News fails from a user experience perspective on the iPhone.
Let’s look at another example, ihackernews.com. This site displays a version of Hacker News designed to be viewed on mobile devices. It gives users the features of Hacker News while allowing them to view submissions and read comments in a way which is formatted for mobile devices. There is no swiping, pinching or zooming, only content consumption. Sweet sweet content consumption. From a user experience perspective on mobile devices, ihackernews.com is clearly a better choice than the default Hacker News site. Responsive design fulfills user expectation.
Let’s look at another example, css-tricks.com. What I love about the responsive nature of this site is that it offers users the same basic experience on mobile browsers as well as desktop browsers. When viewing css-tricks.com on a mobile browser, the user first and foremost sees the blog posts, the most important aspect of the homepage. Some people have concerns about responsive design removing necessary features from websites, such as search boxes and sidebars. Sure, some sites do that but that’s just lazy web design. Looking at css-tricks.com, we see a fully accessible navigation and search box, ad spaces, and important sidebar widgets all presented to mobile users. Once again, responsive design fulfills user expectation.
2. It Might Cost More and Take Longer but it’s Better in the Long Run
Of course it is going to cost more up front for a developer to build out a fully responsive website. What about in the long run though? Are you selling products on your website, do you have advertisements displayed on your site, what about affiliate links? All of those monetary aspects depend on users. Simply put, if you don’t have users viewing your site you are not going to sell products, make money from ads, have a high click through rate etc. etc. From 2010-2012 there was a 69% increase in mobile web traffic in the US and a 162% increase worldwide. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize mobile browsing is becoming a major player in the game. What about two years from now? What about five years from now? If you are a business you might be able to get by without having a responsive site right now, but in the next couple of years it will be essential for businesses to have responsive sites. Responsive design might cost more and take longer but it’s better in the long run
3. Non-Responsive Design Usually Doesn’t Work
This goes back to point number one. A non-responsive design does not fulfill user experience. Have you ever tried purchasing a product online from a website that is not responsive while using a mobile phone? It is torture and next to impossible. Let’s go back to the two examples I used before, Hacker News and css-tricks. The main Hacker News site is pretty challenging to view on a mobile device and I couldn’t imagine viewing the desktop browser version of css-tricks on my iPhone. I might be a special case, but 80% of the time I visit a website on a mobile device, the main factor in whether or not I stay on the website is if the website is formatted for the mobile device I am on. I might be the only one who is like that…but I doubt it. Although it’s not every case, non responsive sites are usually painful to view on mobile devices. Non-responsive design usually doesn’t work.
4. There is Often Load Time Benefits
Here is the deal, mobile bandwidth is expensive in the US. In other parts of the world, it’s even more expensive. The professional web developer has the responsibility of creating websites that use the least amount of bandwidth as possible, especially when being viewed on a mobile device. Some websites, especially blog home pages and image heavy sites, have the potential of using a lot of bandwidth. Why is this? A large part is because of image size. If I am paying for a limited amount of mobile data the last thing I want to do is visit a website on my mobile device that isn’t responsive and uses 1-2mb + of my data just to download the homepage. The great thing about responsive design is image size and download size can very easily be decreased when viewed on a mobile device. For example, if I want to view the Boston Globe news website on my iPhone and the main desktop version of the site loads, it’s going to use more bandwidth than the mobile version, but because the Boston Globe incorporates responsive design the page load size is decreased. Thank you Boston Globe.
With tools such as picturefill.js and Modernizr it’s quite simple to trim down the size of websites when being viewed on mobile devices. If there is even a small chance that a website could work with responsive design, it should be developed as such. When using responsive design, there is often load time benefits.
5. It’s a Compromise
Responsive design is a compromise. Be that as it may, is all design and development not a compromise? With every choice made there is compromise followed up by a subjective decision as to what will happen. Should I have an image slider, a static image or no image? If I am selling a single product there, possibly, will be a static image, but if the site is a blog highlighting recent posts there, possibly, will be an image slider. Each choice is a choice of compromise followed up by a subjective decision.
Responsive designed websites are no different. For example, does a company pay more for responsive design so they can possibly have a lower bounce rate, sell more products or attract more traffic or do they save money but annoy the bejeebers out of their users by forcing them to view the desktop version of their website on a mobile device? Responsive design is a compromise
Obviously, I used a lot of absolutes in this post. I know responsive design isn’t a black and white issue. Some sites work for the better when designed to adapt to mobile devices, but some sites just won’t function well or offer the needed functionality when viewed on a mobile device. I also understand a lot of developers take shortcuts, are lazy, make mistakes or just don’t know how to create a functional user oriented adaptive website. This, in turn, might bring about the unfortunate issue of failed responsive design. Nevertheless, there are a lot developers who know how to create responsive sites and there are a lot of developers who are very good at it. As with every innovation and technology there is downside, but the reality of an inevitable downside is by no means any reason to discount the good, which might present itself in said technology.