E-commerce Link: Highly Responsive
The number of mobile users and the variety of devices on the market are increasing every day, making it easier to reach consumers in different ways. With all of this connectivity, a company thinking about its Web presence needs to consider how consumers will see and interact with the website—whether they are viewing it on a desktop, tablet or phone. A concept that has been gaining a lot of traction in the last few years to address the expanding mobile landscape is Responsive Web Design (RWD).
When mobile browsers display a standard website, it is usually a poor experience because the entire site is scaled proportionately to the size of the mobile screen. Everything on the page shrinks, which makes it hard to read, see images clearly and click buttons. A site can be designed specifically for mobile users in the form of a mobile website or application, but both require an entirely different approach to design, development and site maintenance. Given these options, marketers need to decide which are the most effective ways to reach their audience.
In order to know if RWD will work in your particular situation, it is important to understand what a responsive site is and how it consolidates the different mobile experiences across multiple devices. RWD expert Ethan Marcotte explains in an article titled "Responsive Web Design" that a website is responsive if it uses fluid grids, flexible images and media queries. To put it simply, a responsive site is designed and developed so the layout, content and images will adjust to optimize the way it is viewed based on the size of the browser window. This means no matter what type of device is being used, the same website is being presented in a slightly different way, and the user's experience isn't hindered just because of screen size.
As mobile devices become more common and screen sizes continue to change, people's online habits are shifting, as well. People are no longer just accessing the Web while on the go as smartphones and tablets are becoming a primary way to connect to the Internet, even at home. Responsive sites are becoming more common because they allow users to view the same websites on their desktops at work, their phones on the commute home and a tablet from their couches in the living room. Some of the companies that have already developed responsive sites include Starbucks, Microsoft and Disney.
Advantages of having a single website that works across all devices include increased SEO value and simpler site maintenance. While there are a lot of benefits to a responsive site, there are some things to consider before making the move to RWD.
Responsive Website Costs
The cost of building a responsive site can vary, and budget is top-of-mind for many companies considering RWD. While a responsive site is going to require a larger initial investment, it is important to think about what you are getting in return. You no longer have to create multiple sites to account for every device, or worry how your site will work when a new one comes out.
When to Create a Responsive Website
In a nutshell: You should create a responsive website if building an entirely new site or doing a major redesign.
A key factor in a responsive site is that a user's experience on a small screen should be as elegant as it is on a large one. Because a site's navigation and content are an important factor in the user's experience, they must work well across all devices.
When building a brand new site, the navigation and content don't exist yet and can therefore be tailored to a responsive design. However, converting an existing site, designed specifically for a desktop, probably means the navigation and content are not optimized for a mobile device and likely need to be reworked. This means recreating the information architecture and redeveloping the content strategy—an enormous effort, depending on the size of your site.
There are a number of other factors besides navigation and content that need to be taken into account, as well: including technology limitations, visual design and layout, and project management and staffing.
With all of these things to consider, creating a responsive site only makes sense if you are already developing a new site or planning on overhauling an existing one.
When to Create a Mobile Website
In contrast, a mobile website should be built instead of a responsive site only if the desktop site is not going to be redesigned.
Strong user research, reliable analytics reporting and interpretation of data are required to know when a mobile site is needed. This information will identify what parts of your website users are looking for the most and how frequently they are visiting your website with their mobile devices. If you have determined a mobile site is needed, you can develop one designed specifically for mobile users.
However, if you are creating a new site or doing a major redesign, a responsive site is a better option. With careful planning, a responsive site can and should be a well-designed experience that addresses users' needs based on the size of the browser window. The Children's Museum of Pittsburgh website (pittsburghkids.org) is a great example of this.
When to Build an App
Apps should only be created if the built-in features of the mobile device are needed.
The biggest difference between an app and a website, responsive or mobile, is the ability of an application to utilize the features of a phone to perform a task. Probably the most publicized case of this was with the release of the iPhone 5, which highlighted the fact that only an app can provide spoken turn-by-turn directions. Another example of leveraging a phone's features are banking apps that allow users to make deposits by taking a photo of a check using the camera.
As more mobile devices become available and usage increases, responsive websites will likely become more prevalent, and may replace the need for mobile websites. As the concept of responsive Web design continues to evolve and technology becomes more advanced, it may even replace the need for mobile apps. Although responsive Web design is an attractive option for many, it may not be a one-size-fits-all solution for everyone.
James Go is a user experience designer at Designkitchen, a Chicago-based interactive agency, and a colleague of regular E-commerce Link columnist Cristin Siegel. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.