Mobile

Is responsive design killing mobile?

Picture yourself at a work event. What are you wearing? What are you talking about? How loud are you talking? If you indulge at all, how much have you had to drink? Now picture yourself on a weekend trip with a group of friends.

We won’t go into details, but things look a little different, don’t they? We all change behaviors based on our environment. Physical location and surroundings have a lot to do with our mindset, and can influence how we do just about everything.

Behavior on a mobile phone vs. a desktop computer is no exception. Your physical location, state of mind and desired outcomes can be profoundly different depending on which device you are using, yet recent efforts to adapt desktop sites to mobile often ignore these differences and simply scale the online experience to a smaller screen. The result is a degraded end-user experience that may not meet the needs of a mobile environment, as well as disappointing outcomes for marketers and consumers.

A Brief Explanation: Responsive vs. Mobile Web

At the most basic level, it’s the difference between having one website or two. Responsive design allows the layout, scale and orientation of the desktop site to be adapted to a mobile viewing experience. The content served up to the user is the same as on a desktop site, and while they layout is organized to accommodate a smaller screen, it is important to remember that the integrity of the desktop site is intended to remain as true to form as possible and any changes to the desktop site will also affect the mobile site. Responsive design is concerned only with size and scale, not with the end user’s device type or presumed environment.

A mobile website is separate and distinct site from the desktop site, and must be maintained as such.  It is designed to cater to the mobile experience, and makes the assumption that the end user has different objectives than they would on a desktop site. This means the mobile site may not offer the full scale of content served up on the desktop version, and the options presented on the landing page may be refined accordingly.

Which is better? Well, it depends

Going back to the work party vs. weekend with friends example, it’s clear we adapt our actions according to our environment. However, the case can be made that there are some things we do no matter where we are. Here are some examples that seek to make the case that the suitability of a responsive or mobile site depends entirely on whether the people using your site are changing behavior based on their environment – or not.

Airlines – Lufthansa first launched its mobile site in 2007 and has committed to continuous updates to ensure the site best meet the needs of its 140,000 daily visitors on-the-go. They understood that the top activities on mobile were not the same as those on desktop. Someone accessing the site via mobile is more likely to have already purchased a ticket and is primarily interested in checking in, viewing their flight status, or reviewing their booked itineraries, and these options are prominently displayed on the home screen and accessible from any page on the site. Whereas one their desktop site, the first thing you see is the option to search and book a new flight, followed by promotional offers.

Weather – Weather is widely considered the most universal topic. It may just be one of the few things we have in common with just about everyone on the planet – weather is weather, no matter where you are. Not surprisingly, we tend to interact with weather-related websites in a similar way regardless of our environment, whether on a mobile devices as we do on our desktop. The basic goal is to check the weather in a particular location. Because of this, it wouldn’t really make sense for a weather company to create a mobile site in addition to a desktop site, as a responsive site will fit the needs of all users, regardless of environment.

Retail – Retailers probably have the toughest job when determining their mobile web strategy.  Because retailer sites are typically very robust, with hundreds – sometimes thousands – of pages, their challenge is to find the perfect balance between website features, driving desired actions and mobile functionality. A recent Retail Systems Research report revealed that 49% of shoppers on Smartphones actually abandon retailers’’ m-commerce sites to use the full desktop sites on their Smartphones.

This speaks to a misunderstanding of the way we use mobile on-the-go, and is the primary reason m-commerce severely lags e-commerce as a convenient way to shop. People are not likely to make purchases at the bus stop or at the airport. Their mindset on-the-go is quite different, which is why translating a desktop site and expecting the same behavior is unreasonable. The pressure is on to cater to mobile shoppers, but an uninformed investment will fall flat if retailers don’t first understand user behavior.

Other Considerations

Aside from behavior on a particular website, data exists to help us understand what kinds of activities are associated with the mobile experience vs. desktop. For example, consumers are almost 2X’s as likely to share content via mobile as they are on desktop, with iPhone users sharing the most at 3X’s more than desktop users. Facebook accounts for 60% of all shares, followed by Twitter and Pinterest. People are more direct in their search terms on mobile and typically use one word versus multiple word searches on desktop.

This effort to minimize the ambiguity of search terms speaks to a greater sense of urgency on mobile, and illustrates an effort to have desired outcome met quickly and with a reduced margin for error. The top purchasing categories on mobile are event tickets, gift cards and food, while on a desktop the top three buys are electronics, books and clothing. This discrepancy in purchasing categories is a manifestation of the distinct behaviors and motivations associated with m-commerce vs. e-commerce.

In Summary

The debate about responsive vs. mobile is moot. There is no way to make a recommendation on either implementation without understanding how people use your service on the go (i.e. via mobile) and how they use it on desktop (at work or at home, after dinner). The insights may surprise you, or they may not, but at the end of the day they will point to your answer. Is their behavior the same? Then use responsive. If it’s different, think about how different it is and whether a mobile site will help your customers better achieve their goals and more easily interact with your brand in any environment. Mobile adoption clearly depends on meeting customer’s needs. If these needs are not met, we might undermine the true potential of mobile and ruin the experience for marketers and customers alike.

Cezar Kolodziej, PhD is the President, CEO and Co-Founder of Iris Mobile. He is recognized as one of foremost mobile technologist and visionary experts on MMS, Rich Media Messaging and universal mobile marketing. He has more than 20 years of technology and managerial leadership experience.


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48 comments
Rita Mantler
Rita Mantler

There are three assumptions in this article that I would like to pick up on:


a) the assumption that responsive design is JUST about moving layout bits around. It is not. In an ideal world, it would be mobile first anyway, rethinking the interactions for every screensize. It's all about interaction here, no matter what screensize. And optimization of the content but that's another few thousand lines of article in itself...

b) The assumption that mobile means "on the move". I know a lot of people that only use their mobile. There's no "desktop" any longer. Sitting on the sofa, shopping online, reading stuff, watching movies. I even found myslef checking my emails on my phone WHILE I was working on a laptop...weird.  I always book my flights almost exclusively via mobile because I don't have time while I'm working on stuff on my laptop.

c) The assumption that we even know what "mobile" is. Are we talking about size? Is it just when I make my screen tiny on my desktop (as I often do to view lots of windows parallel) ? Is my 10inch tab with ridiculous resolution not mobile? The res is so big I get all the desktop sites anyway. Where does a phone end and a tab start? What about the massive telly that gets only via the XBox? That's not a desktop.


I think this whole article could probably have been shortened and put down as:


"It depends. Think about it."

Erin Weigel
Erin Weigel

I feel like some of the commenters didn't read the summary of the article that clearly states there is no general answer as to which way to go. 


Each company needs to understand their user goals to determine the best solution on a case-by-case situation. 



Alex Redman
Alex Redman

neither. responsive design is a bridge, not a solution.

Mike McNally
Mike McNally

The premise is apparently based on a complete strawman definition of "responsive design", as is made explicitly clear in the (incorrect) explanation of what the term means. For example: "Responsive design is concerned only with size and scale, not with the end user’s device type or presumed environment." Really? Who says?  What am I doing if I design a site that's both *visually* responsive and also *functionally* responsive?

Iulia White
Iulia White

We are in the era of mobile devices &users tsunami....so, you can forget for sure about creating only desktop websites...for the future of your business, create a responsive design from the beginning....Here, at http://wearepropeople.com we have 95% of all requests are responsive design.

Martin Orton
Martin Orton

I suppose if you ask a 100 different designers/developers their opinion you'll get a 100 different answers. The point is, at the end of the day, design's purpose is to make things work -- whatever that solution may be.

Tim Ward
Tim Ward

Yeah, let's just go ahead and assume everyone using a mobile is 'on the go'. 

Biodun Savar Dabiri
Biodun Savar Dabiri

Responsive designs have a greater return on investment (money and time) however it is a black art due to the different sizes of screens browsers etc. However it is less time consuming to develop responsive than device specific mobile sites

Pierre Foucart
Pierre Foucart

I would actually have made an article called "is responsive design killing desktop websites?"

Ryan Bishop
Ryan Bishop

These comments prove designers are not developers or product managers. They are designers. They want responsive because it's easier than creating an experience based on device. I don't want my entire cms backend loading when I connect via mobile. I want essential panels only. Its not just about design.

Marcus Winthorpe
Marcus Winthorpe

I use a mobile for personal use, desktop for work.

I often work (on laptop) at home and on the go. I often do personal stuff (on mobile) when at work.

Always frustrates me when mobile sites *fail* to deliver same functionality and content as desktop. But fine if UX radically different : i.e. responsive.

Marco Pesani
Marco Pesani

Dozen of user research proven that this article is simply wrong.

Fred Dobson
Fred Dobson

In my opinion this makes a lot of sense. You might want to serve a smaller or larger site based on user agent. May not want to rely on client side scripts when the server could make a decision about it. I liked the comment about how it's not really either/or and you can have both a responsive design and mobile specific site. People who want happy customers might want options. Site optimization is a factor. Is responsive really making the web better or developers lazier? :)

Michael Hiles
Michael Hiles

Was this article written by someone who clearly doesn't understand HTML5, jQuery, and CSS3? It's called "write once, run anywhere". I am not sure what the point of this article really was. Writing a specific mobile app used to be the result of someone wanting to access device-specific hardware functions. But with the advent of things like navigator.geolocation the browser can access the native GPS hardware functions of a mobile device. Just as client-installed applications went by the way of the dodo bird for PCs, so shall they go for mobile. Nobody wants to support multiple versions of an application (ie. iOS app, Android app, mobile website, browser website). Devs will write once, and the application will render appropriately in the browser. Period. There is zero ROI justification to do anything else from a dev standpoint.

Mukut Chakravarti
Mukut Chakravarti

Its not either or. Mobile sites that incorporate dynamic serving as a solution answers the question poised here obviously as a vested interest of the publisher.

Edo Penano
Edo Penano

Designing a responsive/mobile experience for the end-user is a bit of an art. Who's going to experience your site? What will they be doing in the desktop? What'll they be doing on their smartphone? What is most important for the end-user when experiencing both? Only the end-user can answer those questions. And even then, they're not sure. Yet. Let's assume the end-user has never used your site before: how do they know what experience they'd like to have? They don't. In this case, its the designer's responsibility to direct the end-user to the intended experience. How do designers know which to choose? Shoot, heck if I know! That's why I say it is a bit of an art - interpret ions will vary. However, maybe there is a general design rule. Like, how there are some sites that may be better suited to either type of experience (responsive is to blogs as mobile is to weather) but in the end, I agree with the author that the point is moot - and that title: responsive design killing mobile? Definitely not. Direction-wise; You can get to The Bay in more than one way. So, why not for websites?

Greg Hickman
Greg Hickman

Cezar, I love the comparison you make here and agree that this is going to continue to be the challenge for many businesses. That's why it's so important to really understand the mobile behaviors of YOUR customers. 


One major issue is that you claim "on the go" as mobile when that is not always the case either. 86% of americans use their smartphones while watching tv at home. That's not on the go. 


It's a form of dual consumption which leads to a shorter attention span most likely...or at least distracted. But over 41% of people use their smartphone while at home watching TV everyday. 


At the end of the day, each business/brand needs to understand what their customers expect and want to be able to do from mobile. 


And lets be honest with ourselves....customers don't give a damn if your site is responsive or not. They just want a seamless experience in whatever action they are trying to take. 


Thanks again for analogy though as I think that does get people thinking. 

Juan Manuel Serruya
Juan Manuel Serruya

The headline of the article is complete nonsense.

It's been proven several times by major companies that going for HTML5 for mobile apps is a terrible idea unless you don't care about delivering an inferior user experience.

Don't get me wrong, responsive design is awesome and it certainly helps!, but we've been hearing for years how HTML5 is going to kill native, which it's pretty ridiculous to even suggest considering the status of the industry and how major companies are delivering native and killing their HTML5 apps.


Jeff Fall
Jeff Fall

Responsive sites are better than m-dot sites. Article is pointless.

Aaron Kantrowitz
Aaron Kantrowitz

This article is guest authored by a person (that guess who) owns and solicits a company that renders mobile versions of websites for its clients. Of course... Now it makes sense... I can't believe VB would allow this.

Jeremy Reger
Jeremy Reger

exactly my thinking.. no.. its making the web better...

Aaron Kantrowitz
Aaron Kantrowitz

You can absolutely serve up different content if a user is utilizing a mobile device on a responsive design. You do not need an entirely separate mobile site.

Jonas Windey
Jonas Windey

Is that why all the major sites (like booking.com, facebook) have a specific mobile version of their website instead of just using responsive css? They are so different in terms of user experience that it's impossible to do with just media queries.

Elvis Adomnica
Elvis Adomnica

What the article is arguing about is having a responsive layout that just adapts to the screen (resizing pictures, hiding some content, increasing font-size) versus a dedicated mobile website (i.e m.example.com) where the content is pre-designed for a mobile platform. 

Using responsive design does not necessarily mean optimized for mobile. For instance, if in you responsive layout you are just resizing images to fit a mobile device you are not taking in consideration the bandwidth wasted on a mobile to download the desktop full-scale picture. Also, hiding content on a mobile device means that the content was loaded unnecessarily. Of course, this things can be optimized but how many companies do so?  

Elvis Adomnica
Elvis Adomnica

Yes, a responsive design can serve up different content bu usually this is done by using heavy JavaScript libraries. Have a look at the impact of javascript on mobile and then we are talking.

Mike McNally
Mike McNally

@Jonas Windey Who says you have to "do it" with just media queries? The idea that the word "design" in "responsive design" applies only to visual layout is really weird, and I don't know where it came from. I don't care, of course, because being a capable developer I feel no need to be constrained by pointless pedantic definitions for terms like "responsive design". There are lots of ways that a site or application can be sensitive to device particulars, and anybody who cares about user experience will employ them as necessary.