Responsive Web Design, is it the Answer? or Just Responsive?

I have shrugged off responsive web design for some time now despite it’s growing popularity. I first came across “the concept” four years ago; at the time, responsive design required Javascript and dynamically changed stylesheets based on viewport size.  Suffice to say I have long been aware of the capability to adapt design based on browser size but rarely found a reason to use it. Of course several years ago mobile browsing was limited and rarely supported Javascript anyways. These days mobile browsing is growing… and fast. Additionally most browsers support responsive design natively using CSS. These two factors result in an increased need of viewport specific design and a ubiquitous technology to execute it. That said, I have always struggled recommending responsive design because it feels… well… more fanboy than useful.

I will admit responsive design makes for a more enjoyable experience across different resolutions (and therefore devices) when compared to a single fixed design. When trying to cater to a multi-device audience responsive design is certainly an option, but is it the best one?

Is Context Irrelevant?

I question responsive design as a solution because it ignores the question of context. To assume that responsive design is the answer to the mobile web is to assume people browse on their phone under the same circumstances as a desktop computer. This isn’t the case, not in the slightest. Users browse using a mobile device because it is inconvenient or impossible to use a desktop or laptop.

Users are well aware that browsing on a computer is easier than a mobile device, they choose not to because it’s not practical at the time. This means the location and circumstances surrounding their usage is dramatically different. Rather than leisurely browsing from a quiet home office users are looking for information while standing online at the bank, on the bus, while walking, in the bathroom (ew?), etc…

The significance of this contextual difference is massive. When you have a fast connection, a large monitor, plenty of time and fewer distractions you welcome things like stimulating visuals, subtle effects and unessential content. You have the time and the resources to ignore the irrelevant and focus on what matters to you. In the mobile context almost the opposite is true. You have slow connections, limited screen real estate, little time and lots of distractions.

How can responsive web design be a solution to mobile browsing when it only addresses one (maybe two) of the aforementioned issues? Responsive design is best at addressing the reduced screen real estate of mobile devices. It does nothing to show the most contextually relevant content and reducing irrelevant content can only be done via hacks (display:none). Not to mention your device still downloads more data than necessary. Responsive design rearranges what’s on the screen for an improved presentation. The presentation is improved, but isn’t the web all about content? What does responsive design do about content?

But It’s Not All Bad, Right?

I am a firm believer in mobile specific sites. If mobile is important to you or your audience you need to invest in a site custom tailored for the mobile experience. Doing so is more expensive in both initial investment and ongoing maintenance but the payoff is worth it.

Despite the shortcomings of responsive design, it can be valuable. As a pragmatist, I accept it’s not practical to design a website to the highest of ideals. Mobile specific sites are resource intensive, the return is not always worth the investment. Alternatively, responsive design — with some practice — is not that difficult (ie: resource moderate.) If you want to improve the experience of the site across devices but can’t justify creating an entirely separate site then by all means use responsive design. When done well, it makes a significant difference.

Where Does That Leave Us?

I am a fan of responsive design, despite the tone of this post. The web design industry moves quickly, creating excitement. In my opinion, one of our industry shortcomings is “tactic-itous,” where new technologies are introduced and we are tempted to use them just because it’s new. Responsive design is both new and exciting, this has led to glorification. A year ago we experienced the same surge of excitement with web fonts (and the same occurred with jQuery before that.) Many designers used new, open licensed fonts simply because they could not because they were most appropriate.

If responsive design (or any web technology) will improve the experience for your users then by all means use it. However, make the decision based on strategy, don’t simply use the tactic which is newest and most exciting.