Why Responsive Design Isn’t a Cure-All

A much-talked-about way to go mobile is responsive design. Some big brands are using this method, and a lot of advocates are calling it the best solution to fit to mobile. But is it really ideal?

It is certainly an option, but it’s extremely case-based and probably rather just functional than ideal. The function of responsive design is simply adjusting all content of the desktop site to any screen size possible. But ultimately, the mobile experience should be for the mobile audience, which is different than the desktop audience. The mobile consumer is usually on the go, which results in very different browsing behavior. Page views and time spent on a site and/or a page are dramatically smaller than for desktop. Responsive design does not recognize the mobile context — it just adjusts the size.

The question is: Is the mobile consumer really going to want to look at all the content your desktop version is now providing? The key to a fast and pleasant mobile experience for the mobile audience is a clear, good-looking and simple design with features that are most important to the user. Responsive design cannot determine what people are most likely searching for on the site. If the mobile consumer is looking up a restaurant, she is most likely searching for the menu, a store locator and possibly a “contact us” with click-to-call button. So why not build a mobile site with these features? Why give an array of information and drive your storytelling (bios, detailed product information, programs, etc.) on a device that people do not necessarily use to hang out?

Forrester Research has looked at how U.S. shoppers use their mobile phones and finds that nearly one-third of consumers are using their phones to locate nearby stores. What responsive design cannot do is use the phone’s capabilities — such as GPS. Instead of a quick search that would use the location service on the phone, the consumer will just be provided with a list of stores and then have to figure out which one is the closest to her. That’s functional but not ideal.

Also not ideal is the load time of most sites that use responsive design. If the site has a lot of images, the load time will be horrendous due to the fact that the images are mostly just scaled down. Building a mobile site gives the publisher the chance to integrate images that are quick to download and easy to view.

But besides providing the mobile consumer with better design, quick and essential navigation, and the power to use the phone’s capabilities, a mobile website can also give the brand the opportunity to drive a different digital marketing strategy. The possibility of providing different promotional initiatives with redeemable QA codes or opt-in with geo-locations is a value add when having a separate mobile site in place.

When looking at the mobile presence of some of the brands mentioned in the Digiday article, I discovered that I have to play finger-ballet by scrolling down through a mass of content or that some content does not fit the screen but extends beyond the frame. Furthermore, some sites are a hybrid of responsive design and a mobile site, actually allowing the usage of the phone’s GPS capabilities. Other sites are just responsive on the landing page but have no mobile experience in place on their key commerce page that would actually drive more sales if the access was mobile-friendly. I have also noticed inconsistencies with font size and content sitting on top of each other, resulting in a poor experience.

Responsive design is a solution for simple websites with few images and prominent, clear content. A mobile site should be in place to drive through an experience that is clear, to the point and takes advantage of the mobile device. A company should think about the on-the-go consumer in detail: location of the user, connectivity, performance of the mobile device, the time the user has and information she really needs.

Marco Koenig is executive director of Meteor Group USA, a full-service digital agency that specializes in mobile marketing.

Image via Shutterstock


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