Responsive web design is good. But it’s not enough

The responsive web design (RWD) movement got a push from Google CEO Larry Page this week during the company’s quarterly earnings call. “We don’t necessarily want (our advertising clients) to have mobile sites,” Page said. “I find it confusing…. I’d almost say that we shouldn’t be designing for mobile. The kind of mobile phones we have now, the state-of-the-art, are a little bit beyond, and those experiences should work on those devices as well. I’d like to see us move in that direction.”

Indeed, Google officially endorsed RWD last year, recommending that configuration over transcoding or stand-alone mobile sites. And responsive design is getting plenty of love elsewhere, too: At least a dozen noted blogs named the strategy a major web design trend to watch for this year, and it has been embraced by high-profile brands like Starbucks, Microsoft and Disney.

I absolutely understand why retailers, publishers and other brands are so attracted to RWD. It provides a kind of lowest-common-denominator solution, enabling site owners to support smartphones, tablets and PCs while building and maintaining a single site. It is flexible enough to allow layouts and images to be optimized for nearly any screen, delivering a kind of “write once, run anywhere” functionality under a single URL. That is obviously a huge improvement over transcoding, which typically either shrinks content to the size of a phone’s screen (often making it unusable) or provides a fraction of the content and forces users to scroll to see the entire page (making it nearly impossible to navigate).

Unique mobile uses require unique mobile sites

For most sites, though, mobile requires more than just an optimized version of a traditional website. The smaller screens and limited keypads or touchpads of mobile phones call for sites that are more simplified and easier to navigate – even if that requires more overall clicks than a full-blown site might require. The mobile sites of Kayak and National Geographic are good examples here, offering made-for-mobile landing pages that feature simple menus rather than a huge layout with many tabs and other options.

And people often are looking for very different kinds of information on their phones than they are on their PCs. While I often access on my laptop to check user reviews of restaurants, for instance, I would be much more inclined to use that site on my phone to find addresses or phone numbers of nearby restaurants. Unfortunately, Yelp doesn’t redirect my Windows Phone to a mobile site, instead overwhelming me with its familiar PC-centric home page requiring me to enlarge it before I even start a search. That demonstrates why it behooves site owners to prioritize content on their mobile sites, making it easy for on-the-go users to find what they’re most likely to be looking for. Online publishers should also consider giving prime real estate to features like click-to-call, which aren’t often used on PCs but are invaluable in mobile

The need for speed

Web publishers should also be aware of the constraints of mobile networks and tailor their content accordingly. Mobile connections far less consistent than fixed-line broadband links, and mobile users are notoriously impatient when it comes to accessing the web. So mobile sites should be lightweight, consuming minimal data and loading as quickly as possible – even if that means providing a less-than-immersive user experience. And while PC keyboards are ideal for filling out lengthy forms or providing other detailed information, those tasks are nightmarish on smartphones and should never be a component of any mobile-centric site.

Just to be clear, I think responsive web design holds tremendous promise for many web publishers and online retailers. Sites that are designed to simply convey information and that require little or no interactivity may find that RWD is an ideal solution. But I think the majority of organizations with a major online presence will continue to need a stand-alone site to serve the unique needs of mobile users.