How to respond to responsive design


The plethora of handsets and tablets hitting the market over the past 18 months, with their varying screen sizes and form factors, has left Web designers with something of an issue to address: How do you ensure your online content looks good, whatever device the reader is accessing it on?

Up until now, it’s an issue that few brands have tackled, beyond creating a dedicated mobile site to be displayed when a mobile phone is detected as the device trying to access the site.

But what site do you serve to an iPad, for example? Your full site or the mobile version? And what about the iPad Mini, the Kindle Fire, and all the other sub-9-inch tablets now sitting on coffee tables in homes up and down the land? 

To my knowledge, one brand, Mercedes-Benz, addressed the issue last year with the launch of a tablet-optimised site, just like a mobile-optimised site, but optimised for a tablet, rather than a mobile phone.  

Since then, a new solution to the problem has emerged, in the form of responsive design. It’s an approach to Web design that automatically alters the layout of a page depending on the device being used to access it.

I’ve seen some impressive demos, whereby, as the presenter shrinks the size of a desktop browser window to mimic first a tablet and subsequently a mobile phone, the content is magically re-purposed before your eyes so that it works on the screen in question. 

At first glance, it looks like the perfect solution for the publishing industry. No longer do you have to worry about mobiles, tablets (of all shapes and sizes), and desktop PCs. Just create a responsive design for one site and the responsive design will take care of the rest. Additionally, everything can live at the same URL, with no need for m. mobile site addresses. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s not quite that simple.

Critics of responsive design – many of whom are in the business of building mobile-optimised sites – argue that the idea of sending your full desktop site and allowing the device to decide what, and what not, to display inevitably leads to slow load times, particularly over a cellular connection.

Also, the re-ordering process can mean that when the site is viewed on a mobile device, there’s a lot of downward scrolling involved to access the content. The Guardian moved to a responsive site for devices with a screen size of 7 inches or less last November, and to my eyes/fingers, navigation feels less intuitive than it did on the previous dedicated mobile site.

Other examples of responsive design publisher sites include the BBC, Metro and The Boston Globe, which was the first newspaper publisher to go down this route in late 2011. 

Supporters of responsive design say these issues are surmountable. Build the mobile site first, they say, then build up from there to the desktop version — rather than building the desktop site first and then adding code to shrink it down to the right size for a mobile handset. 

Our own site, Mobile Marketing magazine, is currently undergoing a redesign. For the past two years, we have been running an m. mobile site, and our designer wants to know if we want to serve the responsive version of the new site to mobile devices, or to maintain a dedicated mobile site, populated from the desktop site’s RSS feed. 

Our honest answer is, we’re not sure. Vut when we last discussed it a few days ago, he made the point that in OS terms, the fragmentation of a few years ago has shaken down to the two dominant platforms, iOS and Android (and who knows what will become of Windows Phone and BlackBerry).

That being the case, he advised, a responsive design site served to the mobile phone, with an alert on the first visit to advise visitors to download the iOS or Android app for a richer experience, might not be a bad way to go.

There seems a lot of sense in that approach, although our app (of any flavour) is a work in progress, since we opted for the reach of the mobile Web when we were making the “app or Web” call three years ago. 

In summary, responsive design is by no means the silver bullet it is sometimes made out to be, but it certainly warrants investigation by everyone in the publishing industry. As a way of coping with current and future device fragmentation, particularly in the tablet space, it has a lot to offer, even if the responsive versus dedicated mobile site question is currently a tougher one to call.

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