Why Responsive Design is Not Built for the User

Jeff Hasen is CMO of Hipcricket, a mobile marketing and advertising company.

Marketers and designers have been told repeatedly of the benefits of responsive design. I, however, believe these benefits are mostly myths, since the theory hasn’t lived up to all that it’s promised.

Some claim that responsive design automatically fits all devices: It is a simple design build that extends across many browsers and devices. In actuality, if a site is not designed for mobile first, users will encounter problems fast. Designers are mistaken in assuming responsive design is one-size-fits-all, because desktop-specific images on a website are larger in file size than those used on a mobile site and can, therefore, jam users’ precious bandwidth and patience. Users are forced to endure slow access times, only increasing frustration and the general likelihood that they will abandon the site due to an unsatisfactory experience.

Even if responsive design promises one build to start, a designer still must test it on each device and on every generation. What appears to be a cheaper and more efficient method of creating Web and mobile properties ends up being extremely time- and resource-dependent. There are long-term technical and maintenance issues for developers who don’t consider that responsive design requires constant monitoring of changes and upgrades to all devices and OS versions required. The quality-assurance time and costs alone will negate any perceived upfront savings.

If you create a desktop site via responsive design, smartphones still must download the entire site design, not just the contents for the mobile version. Changes made to the design must be processed by the phone, further affecting data transfers and load times. If a user is on a slow network, forget about it; the usability and overall experience is severely impacted.

Perhaps my biggest problem with responsive design is that it doesn’t consider the user experience by remaining focused on the most importance user concern: content. The creative must be well represented in the design of a mobile site. Designing for each platform and screen size is critical, but since Web consumption is quickly moving to mobile, designers should consider context and mobile format first and foremost. Focusing on one screen size without considering how the content will translate in other formats and sizes will only complicate the build later on. Timelines and testing cycles are doubled, increasing ongoing maintenance and total cost of ownership.

Responsive design is only a piece of the puzzle, and certainly not the comprehensive solution that some marketers believe it is. I urge designers to question whether responsive design is right for their properties and to look closely at the cost and time commitments, as well as the ability to render effectively from a device/context/content perspective. In this day and age, designing for mobile first is smart and logical. A user is highly likely to search for your business on his or her smartphone, and the first impression will be derived from that experience.

Image via Shutterstock