Mobile Apps: The Trouble With Using ‘Responsive Design’
Cairn van Vuuren
If you’ve recently chatted with your Web development team, you may have heard about responsive design. A growing trend for today’s businesses, publishers and developers, responsive design is an approach to Web development that many brands are considering to optimize their online content for multiple devices with varying screen sizes across the traditional Web, tablets, smartphones and beyond.
Like any philosophy, responsive design is a choice, and a tempting one at that. Many pro-responsive developers affectionately term RD “one-Web,” which emphasizes the single set of code a responsive site is based on. This design principle utilizes coding language that responds to the device being used – whether an Android smartphone or an iPad – in order to display content relative to the size and orientation of its screen.
Amid an overwhelming amount of mobile options and solutions, it’s easy to see why responsive design’s singular code seems like an alluring universal panacea for mobile optimization. However, while responsive design aims to scale web content fluidly across multiple devices with different screen sizes, it may not represent the best option for organizations aiming to deliver unique and innovative experiences to customers.
A good example of this dilemma can be found in LinkedIn’s recent approach to developing its iPad app. According to Kirin Prasad, LinkedIn’s head of mobile development, responsive design doesn’t work for complicated sites like the LinkedIn iPad app, 95% of which was developed with HTML5 to target a specific set of user tasks. This approach allows LinkedIn to create different experiences on different devices based on use case and context. For the majority of sites that require an interactive experience like LinkedIn’s, responsive design limits the different designs necessary to deliver functionality for each use case.
So when is responsive design an appropriate solution?
When the only changing factor in the Web experience is the user’s device, responsive design is a useful solution. It works very well for content sites like magazines and newspapers, because content is simply being reformatted. If you’re accessing a publication’s website on a smartphone, for example, you still want to read the news, just smaller parts of it.
People magazine recently adopted responsive design to great effect in order to scale traditional Web content across screens. This works well for magazines and other content publishers, as users are coming to consume content, not necessarily to interact or search for certain answers.
Beyond device-specific content display, the two other pieces to consider when designing your mobile strategy are use case and context, two realms in which responsive design does not contribute meaningfully.
Use case covers the driving reasons behind a user’s foray onto your mobile site – what the user is looking to do and how it can be accomplished on your site. Take an airline website, for example. When a user visits an airline’s site from their smartphone, they typically want to be able to do a few very specific things like check their flight status, check-in for a flight, or access local information related to their destination. The user expects a completely different experience from when they access the airline site from a computer, which more easily facilitates detailed flight searches.
On the other hand, the mobile user’s goals are often context-driven. In “The Future of Mobile eBusiness is Context,” Forrester analyst Julie A. Ask defines “mobile context” as “the sum total of what your customer has told you and is experiencing at his moment of engagement.” Because user experience and context are the new benchmarks of a mature mobile strategy, they should drive the decisions you make when designing your mobile experience.
Responsive design implicitly suggests that mobile is a subset of the traditional Web, but it is clear that people use mobile for a very different end. Consider what a user is searching for when accessing a mobile site. The user does not wish to browse on the same site that is available on desktop PC, but expects a different experience for different end goals – an experience that is fast, convenient, relevant and contextual.
Many banks have done a great job of optimizing the mobile experience to help users accomplish specific goals. This is why responsive design does not work across the board – it is not able to deliver the individual experiences, like the ability to deposit a check by snapping a picture, required by mobile banking customers. The limitations of responsive design in adapting for use case and context means that it is more hindrance than help in mobilizing distinct, device-specific experiences that impart user value, such as more complicated web applications.
The future of digital business depends primarily on mastering the mobile channel. Mobile’s mushrooming numbers are due to the convenience of remote access and a new reliance upon the delivery of information when and where little to none was previously available. When developing your approach to engaging customers via mobile, it is key to ensure your strategy accounts for the rising expectations your customers have for this important channel.
Once you understand the kind of mobile experience you want to create, you can decide whether adopting a responsive design philosophy can deliver upon these expectations and goals. While responsive design can help you achieve a certain measure of consistency across channels, the real prize lies with the ability to create unique experiences. A broader multi-screen approach designed dynamically by channel will enable the sort of customer experiences that yield higher engagement and contribute to overall success.