Modern Web Design: Should Everything Be Responsive?

By Andres Zapata, EVP of Strategy and Professor at Maryland Institute College of Art 

Logically, the right answer is “No.” But emotionally, the answer is “yes,” “no,” and “maybe.” In other words, “it depends.” I know it doesn’t sound like much of an answer, but it is the right one.

In the end, the decision should be driven by a number of interconnected factors such as:

  • business objective;
  • target audience;
  • creative direction; and
  • cost of ownership.

Responsive web design is all the rage these days. Only a short few years ago, Ethan Marcotte conceived the term “responsive web design.” Much like when Jeffrey Zeldman coined “web standards” and Jesse James Garrett came up with “Ajax”, Ethan gave us common definitions that unified techniques and standards some of us had been using all along.

The coining and popularization of these terms each birthed a new round of innovation, creativity and standards in web design. And for that, both users and creators are eternally grateful.

We probably should define Responsive Design…

Responsive Design is the use of design and development techniques to optimize content and design across varying resolutions. The technique uses fluid grids, flexible images, flexible type and media queries to deliver resolution-appropriate designs to end-users. In other words, one website is designed and built to adjust itself according to the accessing device's screen size for the best possible experience.

From a business point of view (the cost of making and owning a website), it allows managers to benefit from a single investment across multiple platforms and resolutions. There is an undeniable economic value of single source design, production, and content because managing one website takes less time than managing two or three or… well, you get the idea.

Responsive design is particularly interesting because it introduces “the business of interactive” as a major factor in the decision making process. Not to say that the “business” dimension was always absent, but recognizing it is now a major consideration. But there are other factors—many more, actually. There is usability, content, information architecture, design, and conventions to consider.

Not surprisingly, the popularization of responsive design has stirred up a lot of discussion (disagreement) on this topic. In one camp is Jakob Nielsen saying, “It’s cheap but degrading to reuse content and design across diverging media forms like print vs. online or desktop vs. mobile. Superior UX requires tight platform integration.” We agree with most of his conclusions, but there is more to the story.

Someone should point him to the “80/20 rule.” Twenty percent of the functionality will be used by 80 percent of the users. In a perfect world, with all the time and money, “superior UX” is always the right answer. In the real world, where people with real budgets and time pressures live, his approach is unrealistic.

And with the use of mobile internet doubling every year since 2009, with 1.8 billion worldwide smartphone owners in 2011, and with mobile web searches scheduled to surpass desktop searches by 2013 it seems like a very good argument could be made to make all web design responsive. Maybe not fully responsive every time, but perhaps somewhat responsive every time.

Nothing is perfect. If you decide to implement a responsive design, make sure you plan it out. There are certain things everyone should know about and avoid. And this is not important just about design but also about the development process.

Probably one of the most interesting things emerging is how responsive design can (should?) change the development process. We’ve had some lively and colorful (and always healthy) discussions about this at idfive. While we’ve delivered award winning responsive designs, we are (much like everyone else) still refining our process and approach.

Here are some questions to help guide your decision to use responsive design or not:

  1. What is the mobile traffic coming to our site over the last 12 months and what percent growth is that year-over-year?
  2. What is your institutional policy for mobile experiences?
  3. Is your organization technically, creatively, and emotionally (yes, emotionally) ready for responsive design?
  4. Are there particular reasons as to why a separate mobile-only website makes the most sense? Examples include super long content that needs to be rewritten or completely excluded from mobile consumption or the information architecture should really be different (streamlined) for mobile delivery.
  5. Is the person or team responsible for managing content ready and capable to manage multiple websites or do they only have the capacity for the one site? This is less of an issue for smaller websites.
  6. What specific, if any, user experiences can be delivered through a mobile only implementation that can’t also be done through responsive design (be honest)?
  7. Do you have the time, budget and institutional support for a mobile and tablet only implementation?

One last thought on this… regardless of what you end up doing, test your work. Not just for usability testing, which is super important, but also for functionality and rendering. Suddenly, there are *many* screen sizes to accommodate and it seems that the number of varied size devices gets bigger every time you look.

Whether you decide to launch a responsive design or not, one thing is clear: the decision is not an easy one and it requires a bit of thinking.

I guess that’s not all that different than just about everything else web-related.