Re: In RWD We Trust – Is this trust misplaced?

I recently read this article on Web Design Ledger entitled, In RWD We Trust – Is this trust misplaced? and, like many of the other people who have read it, I was disappointed with some of the information the article offered up.

RWD is really not the be all and end all of a successful online identity. It might work for some and might not deliver on the expectations of others.

I think I mostly agree with this main statement. Having a responsive design doesn’t guarantee a site will be successful. Nor does a responsive design live up to some hype that some markers surround it with, like it is the holy grail of solutions or a silver bullet. While I agree with this statement, I took issue with the statements that the author used to support his idea that responsive web design isn’t right, on some level, for all.

Responsive Web and Your Audience

The author uses the example of a user group for a website that is primarily desktop users, specifically senior citizens. Let’s expand this argument to say that we have a hypothetical client that has a primary user base that mainly uses desktops and not mobile. I’d say there are still reasons to at least make a partially responsive site.

Responsive designs work not just for mobile, but desktops as well. Keep in mind, responsive design mainly works off of view port size and therefore the window size. If a user has multiple windows on their screen or makes their browser smaller, they can benefit from being able to see a layout that is able to show them information without horizontal scrolling. This also allows for support of zooming in the browser and various desktop resolutions. I found it interesting that senior citizens were the example when I’ve known that that particular group are more prone to either zoom their window or set a lower screen resolution for easier reading. Sounds like they would also benefit.

While the main user group may not be using different devices, minor groups may be. Depending on the data and the situation, it may be worth it to at least include minor support for responsive.

Saying that you currently don’t have any visitors with smaller screens now doesn’t mean there won’t be later. In addition, you may not have those visitors or be able to retain them because you don’t have a good solution for them. I’ve seen sites I’ve built get many more visits from varied devices after their redesign to responsive. While that’s not a solid counter argument in itself, it is worth considering. It is also worth considering that desktop usage is starting to waiver while mobile is going up. Your user base will most like move with it over time.

Content Value

The author follows up with this argument on content:

Just the fact that your website renders effectively on mobile devices doesn’t lead to improved brand awareness, which in turn translates into improved traffic and better conversions for your site. If the content offers no real value to the user, your site isn’t going to find traction on mobile devices.

Again, I agree with the statement above. Good content is everything, responsive or not. If your site doesn’t have good content that someone will find useful, your website doesn’t really have much of a point. However, his next part of the content argument is what bothers me:

Contextual content is the key to leveraging the immense potential of RWD. But, if the website content displayed on mobile devices doesn’t satisfy the contextual requirements of the target users, why have RWD in the first place. In this case, it really doesn’t deliver a lot of value in any way or form.

Firstly, I don’t agree with contextual content for many sites. Why? Because with the current technology the way it is, you can’t accurately guess my context when I’m using a particular device. Sure, you can guess, but that’s all it is. Google recently posted in a survey that many people use their phones to browse the web… wait for it… on the sofa at home. Not “out and about” like most people who preach the contextual argument will say. In my opinion, guessing the context of a user is risky at best. Not only that, it can be annoying to a user if you get the context wrong. For his last sentence, I’d argue that if your content isn’t delivering value in mobile (in any context), then you need to ask if it is delivering value in desktop. If you can’t justify the content, it probably doesn’t need to be there for anyone. This is part of a proper mobile first approach.

Responsive Performance

Okay. This argument is actually a little bit more powerful than the others. Its no secret that responsive sites tend to be as heavy, or in rare cases heavier than, their desktop counterparts. However, this is more about improper implementation. There are responsive sites that, when made properly, can actually handle loading times and resources quite efficiently so that they do much better than their desktop versions. The tools are available to do it right, we just have to make use of them. Progressive enhancement people!

The author acknowledges this. However, he goes on to say that designing for multiple screen sizes and devices is inherently complex. While I’d say it certainly can be hard, properly planning the site in the beginning can take away a lot of that complexity. Some of the work of responsive is easy (fluid images, percentage widths, vector assets) and again, with proper tools, can become secondhand nature.

I’d say that because this is still such a new technique, many designers are still trying to figure out how to deal with designing for it and are having a hard time planning because of it. I know people I’ve worked with have had especially hard times with it. In time, we’ll have more experience making these sites properly, from a mobile first perspective.

Unfortunately, there are also a lot of designers that just don’t care. Partially because some consider it a developer only issue. Clearly it isn’t if it and design are so closely tied together. Don’t believe me? I’d suggest reading Brad Frost’s take on it in his article Development is Design.

Price

This is a big “it depends.” Mainly because this changes depending on who is building the site. Will it take longer to develop and plan? Will that incur larger cost versus a fixed width site? Likely, depending on the company. But consider the investment through the life of the site. If we’re talking real long term cost, it is probably worth the short term hit.

By making a responsive site from the beginning, you future proof your site. You also make it as efficient as possible for all types of users and devices (assuming you’re using your tools to do so, and you should be). By doing those things, and incremental updates, you could possibly save yourself from having to do an overhaul as soon as you would have if you hadn’t gone responsive. Also, desktop usage is going down. Mobile (and others) are going up. What will be the cost when you decide you do need that overhaul?

In my opinion, those benefits are worth it in the long run. In addition, I also believe that most companies shouldn’t be charging extra for responsive. We should be designing responsive by default, simply because it is best practice to do so in order to make a more lasting site. Mobile first techniques are also good for getting everything on a site down to what needs to be there. Focus helps.

Conclusion

As always, of course, it all depends. There may be a client who just can’t wait or put in the effort for a responsive design. Maybe they don’t have the budget (again, I don’t personally believe in charging extra for it). Maybe its something unforeseen.

Like many comments on his article, I didn’t fully agree with the author. Though I do think he made some good points in a couple of spots, his supporting arguments for some of them are flawed. But, it is just my opinion (for the most part). If we continue to take on a mobile first approach and don’t penalize our clients with extra costs on what is a best practice, you’ve pretty much gotten past your dilemma on the matter. Certainly as more of us get used to designing and building these sites, our technique and skills will improve to meet the challenges and problems we currently face with responsive.