Is Responsive Design Just Another Hype?

The multiplatform digital world can be daunting for brands. There are many ways to reach consumers online, each requiring different versions of content. This fragmentation has been a common lament for brands and publishers alike. But that is all changing, as we enter the responsive-design era.

Already brands like J&J and publishers like The Boston Globe have taken a leap of faith and adopted responsive design for their content. Digiday talked with David Bliss, founder of digital marketing agency Odopod, about the challenges and opportunities of responsive design. His view is that brands, agencies and publishers should use responsive design as a way to combat digital fragmentation. But that doesn’t mean that the mobile-optimized site is dead.

What challenges does responsive design address for brand marketers?
Brands are seeing an increase in the number of visitors coming from smaller screens that support touch. These different devices render sites for desktop OK, but the experience is not that great, especially if there is data entry, video or images on the site. So what responsive design can do is: It can give brands a way to optimize the layout of their sites to look better for these devices without having to create a mobile site for each device. The cost upfront might be more, but it ends up being cheaper to use responsive design than to build a mobile-optimized site for each device.

What are some of the challenges with responsive design?
I think the biggest challenge we have faced is that it takes a little longer to plan and design the site. It doesn’t take twice as long. Not all brands are ready to take the time to do it. There is still a cost analysis that goes on there. The other challenge is regarding images. There is no way to tell what kind of connection speed these devices are connecting at. You don’t want to send a giant image to a person on an iPhone if he isn’t on a Wifi connection.

What are some key best practices around responsive design?
Make the same content available across all of the layouts, and don’t hide the core content. This goes along with the notion that there is one Web. Also, when building a responsive design site, start with the smallest screen as the default and then use media queries to add layout variations. Embrace iteration and a process that quickly cycles through design, prototype, review and revamp. It is also really important to review the work on actual devices. See how it looks on the most important devices for your audience.

Is there still a place for “mobile” versions of websites?
Definitely. Responsive design does not do much to address mobile use in context. If people are truly mobile and are out and about, you have to make tasks for these users much more optimized than you can with a responsive-design approach. Identify tasks that consumers would most likely be doing on mobile, and you can turn that into a mobile site  on its own or even an app. You can even use responsive design for a mobile site to optimize for the various screen sizes in mobile.

How should agencies “sell” responsive design to clients?
Make clients understand that using responsive design is like future-proofing your online content and making it more resilient to change. New devices come out all the time; just look at the Kindle Fire. The Kindle Fire is right in between the iPhone and the tablet, as it is a little bit smaller compared to most tablets and bigger than iPhones. If you don’t have a responsive site, you need to choose which of the lesser evils to send the Fire to. Neither works as well as it should. You may have to add some CSS rules to tweak the existing platform, but that is the worst-case scenario. Instead of building a site every time a new device launches, build one for all of the platforms.

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