Let me start off by saying that this blog is NOT about undermining or questioning the value in a Responsive Design & Approach. In fact am in the middle of two reasonably sized responsive executions with a team of rock stars @ SapientNitro for leading brands and can’t wait to see them go LIVE. I do however want to share some thoughts on why responsive comes with a set of what I now call “responsive temptations” which are better avoided in some cases. A responsive approach for that reason isn’t a holy grail that for some seems to resolve all and any mobile web need today. It does bring a completely different way of thinking and perceiving web design & user experience but definitely not a “one size fits all” case as evident from this quote from Ethan Marcotte, the founder of the Responsive Design approach in his book Responsive Design: “most importantly, responsive web design isn’t intended to serve as a replacement for mobile web sites.”. And this of course is my short perspective on it.
Respond to Design vs Design to Respond
The biggest opportunity for a Responsive Design becomes its biggest challenge when a web team decides to adopt a responsive approach even before the idea is conceptualized, let alone coming up with a defined approach to make a rationale decision on whether responsive would make sense or not. The approach is determined purely based on the number of devices that need to be supported especially if it involves a mobile presence. It completely ignores the design & functional gulf that may exist between the desktop & mobile versions of the site.
This is when a design & overall user experience is adjusted backwards to fit into a responsive approach (Design to Respond) instead of coming up with the most optimized and relevant user experience and allowing responsive to be one of the possible approaches to solve it (Respond to a Design) – this is almost like buying a fancy cover without knowing the object you are covering, let alone the dimensions. Despite the benefits that come with responsive, it still requires a thought through approach to determine if it is indeed the best approach to deliver the desired user experience or may be having a separate “mobile” site is a better solution – after all www.m.mymobileweb.com isn’t suddenly a bad ideaJ.
Why www.m.mymobileweb still works? More than just a common codebase
Technology excellence together with the idea of a single codebase and a common solution for all sizes, resolutions and devices is surely attractive, interesting and talk of the geek world. If you are not talking & building responsive, you probably belong to the era of dial-ups. As a technologist & creative as well, its easy to fall into that trap but that does not take away from the conventional way of building mobile sites, give mobile its own presence because it may need it in some cases – just thinking of a common codebase, management and scalability may not be enough. Mobile is really a behavior, a different mindset than desktop or tablet. In some cases it can benefit from the approach especially for content driven sites like the now famous Boston Globe’s responsive website, however for sites that are more interactive, with features & functions, the ideal experience in such cases could be beyond the adaptation achieved through media queries & fluid grid, it is a dramatic shift in navigation, functionality, content choreography that creates a completely different behavior, better achieved through a separate mobile site, at least for now until the responsive approach evolves further to handle user interactions & behavioral adjustments.
As I had mentioned in the very beginning, this is by no means an attempt to question or doubt the value of responsive design. Responsive is a need of the hour in an increasingly fragmented device ecosystem that is continuously evolving with new devices and unique resolutions and usage patterns. However, it demands a cautious approach and a conscious decision making effort that is not just based on the list of devices but driven off a much broader mobile design and the most optimum user experience.