The pros and cons of responsive versus mobile design.
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  • Responsive versus Mobile Design

    Hervé St-Louis
    March 18, 2012

    I developed my first mobile site two years and a half ago. I know all the ins and out of making a mobile site just right for users an d that looks good and is useful on any platform.

    But a lot of people have been discussing responsive (and sometimes adaptive) Web sites, where the same page is served to all users, which in theory makes the need for dedicated mobile site unnecessary. So I tried my hand at one of those responsive sites. Not too difficult to do, but I'd say by now, a lot more complicated than making a dedicated mobile site and a regular site.

    My results are not too shabby, but just like my first mobile site from way back; with more practice, I'll be quite good at it. Funny because over the years I optimized and refined my mobile site to such extent, that it's superior in every way to my first attempt. I think the same will happen with this new responsive Web site. But then again, neither the many examples I've seen all over the place online feel ready. They don't look good on all my test devices and could use a lot of refinement. Even so-called responsive design guru's work feels incomplete. It's not easy to develop a great responsive site around an existing page or platform.

    That brings in another point of discussion. If you go responsive, should you eliminate your mobile site? I say no. Don't. I won't archive my mobile sites and will continue to offer them as options to visitors even if the responsive site will work with mobile devices.  Here's why.

    1-A lot of my users link to my mobile home pages and have been by-passing the classic pages for a while. Removing a mobile page (if you have an established one with several links pointing to it) would break user experience - even if I could use redirection.

    2-Many of the existing mobile pages have links of their own -especially in places like Twitter, where linking to a mobile page often makes more sense if you communicate to tons of people and you don't know what device they will use to view your links. This has happened independently of me too - users just link to the mobile version on their own. I've seen this for my own sites and other people's. Mobile pages, I'd say are safe to link to because they load much faster and can also be seen easily by desktop users.

    3-The mobile site just works. It's not buggy, and it's been tested.

    But what are the pros of responsive sites?

    1-If you have a mobile site, you can use the best parts of the mobile site and reuse them in the responsive version.

    2-You can design a middle viewpoint for tablets. So instead of serving either a mobile or a desktop only version to tablets, you can design with them in mind. The tablet specific view is a good alternative for users as many of them are using them for casual browsing.

    3-There are fewer needs to remove features to accommodate mobile designs with responsive. You can keep it all on one page.

    4-No more splitting traffic across multiple "entry pages." There is only one canonical version of every page, increasing the PR value.

    But what if you haven’t gotten around to developing a mobile site at all? Should you just by-pass the mobile version and invest all of your efforts in being responsive only? It depends on your end goal. Responsive design, which seems to be the new darling of Web developers, commits a cardinal sin against users.  It provides a different user experience based on the device and even the device’s orientation and the user cannot control nor have a single user experience over which they have a firm grasp. The device they use to view our Web page and its orientation decides what they see.

    If that’s not much of a problem for you, then go ahead and built everything as a responsive Website. However, the experience of developing only for mobile devices is a worthy experience and a skill that when acquired will improve the mobile parts of your responsive design.

    For me, responsive sites are a bit of stop gap measures and one size fits all. Even after I refine my responsive site, I’ll keep the mobile site. It’s just way more optimized for phones and loads much faster which is always good for users. It also continues to give users a choice. Responsive sites, in terms of user experience, impose a layout and an interface on the end-user based on their device. If you use a tablet, using it in landscape or in portrait will deliver a different page layout that the user has no control over. For usability, this is not good at all. A page should not change whether your tablet is in portrait or landscape mode. The user experience should be consistent. Depending on the design and layout used, the relative user experience generated may be minimal and not worth the fuss, but it's always important to remember user experiences.

    Keeping dedicated and separate desktop and mobile versions of the same site, guarantee that the user experience is consistent and does not change based on the orientation of the user’s device. If something changes due to the orientation of a phone or a tablet, it should offer some kind of benefit to users, like I did with my ComicBookBin and TED apps.  With responsive design, whole columns and menus shift place and no longer share the same visual context that they do, depending on the device of your choice. If I choose to completely remove some features of a Web site in the mobile version, that’s my decision and the user has been given a clear and optimized experience. If they desire to get missing features back, they can move to the classic version. With a responsive site, I don’t have this choice. Features that should appear as an aside, in the context of a full Web site, appear at the bottom of the page, after the user has scrolled down. The visual context is broken.

    P.S. is neither responsive nor mobile-friendly! I’d have to rethink the whole experience of the Web site before I ever started changing it.

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