I originally posted this on my LinkedIn profile, but felt that it was a good one to make available on my blog as well.
Responsive web design, if done correctly, can be a great way to ensure that your users get a consistent experience across all devices. The idea is that you have one code base (html and css) that covers different screen-sizes and renders the same content differently for these different screen-sizes. When a change needs to be made, it only needs to be made once – but still needs to be tested across multiple platforms.
Before responsive became more universally used, you would have separate code bases for each rendering of your web site – so for desktop, mobile and tablet, you would have three different code bases. This means that when a change needs to be made, or you add a new content type etc, your developers would need to make changed in three different places and still be tested across multiple platforms.
On the face of it, responsive solves a lot of problems. It ensures that only one code base needs to be maintained and that users get a consistent experience across all devices. All this sounds great, but I can’t help but think that we are missing something – motivation and context.
Motivation and Context
Users access the web across different devices for different reasons at different times of day and by using different methods of discovery. Does one design/experience suit all of our users?
With a responsive site (in most cases), the navigational architecture of the site is consistent, the homepage hierarchies are consistent, the related articles are consistent, the most popular articles are consistent etc.
I find that both from my own experiences and from the data that I am seeing from my position as Analytics Director is that users want different content depending on which platform they are accessing a site on.
When I am on a desktop device – whether its at home or at work – I tend to use Google more to find things that I want to know about. I’ll search for something specific and will only want to really read about that one thing. It will lead me to bounce and not be very valuable to the web site that I am visiting.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some sites that I am very loyal (mainly centered around social, news and sports) that I am very loyal to, but outside of that I find that I am a serial bouncer when it comes to the Desktop. I need one hit information. I am not in browsing mode here.
My mobile phone browsing is driven a lot more my social media. Again, I have my loyal sites that I will frequent directly regardless of device, but overall, my mobile web consumption is driven by what I see on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. I am more likely to be accessing the web during down time – traveling, breaks from work, boredom – so I am much more likely to browse and enjoy my experience.
My tablet is more used as a second screen. I don’t tend to be using it as a second screen based on what I am watching, but more as a way to keep me entertained when my wife is watching Secret Eaters, Celebrity Big Brother, Come Dine With Me etc. So my behaviour here is a hybrid between Desktop and Mobile – which I suppose is one of the main points of having a tablet!
The data that I have access to is showing me the same thing. I find that Google dominates acquisition for Desktop, social for mobile and an equal mix for tablet.
This leads me back to my question – is responsive enough?
I could not agree more that having a single code base makes the most sense. I also agree that content should render correctly across all devices. But what I do not agree with is that one experience suits all.
What happens when users on desktop are more interested and only access content that ranks highly on SEO? So news stories, one shot pieces of information that are important at that moment in time.
And on mobile, what happens when that gallery is proving popular or a top 10 list drives traffic. This is very different to the desktop experience.
Likewise with Tablet being a hybrid of the two.
So what do I suggest?
I am not and have not come up with a new concept for web site design. What I am suggesting however is that we take a step back and see if there is some form of hybrid – where we can take responsive design but make it adaptive to the context of the user.
Ensure that we can change the experience to better reflect what a web site is offering to a specific individual based on behaviour exhibited by others and their context.
To assume that those users that visit your site across multiple devices is arrogant – its something to strive for, but in my experience it is just not the case.
I think that different devices should be designed for differently based on behaviour and that we need to be more fluid in site hierarchies and functionality that best suites the devices that the content is being consumed on.
I would really like to hear what other people’s experiences are and whether you feel that responsive is enough – or if you think its missing something and if you can put your finger on what that is!