Restrictions of Responsive Web Design

With over 65% of searches now started on phones rather than desktops, websites need a format compatible with the smaller screen.

Mobile versions usually feature a thumb-friendly drop-down menu and no sidebars so that the essential text takes centre stage. “Responsive” websites – available on content management systems such as blogger, but particularly promoted by WordPress users – go a step further.  They politely ‘ask’ the device they are landing on to send its dimensions, and then fit tidily inside them, whatever they may be.  In the end it amounts to the same thing – a larger version on computer desktops and tablets, and a slimmer, drop- down menu version for phones.


It’s not about the present, it’s about the future says Ethan Marcotte, the author of Responsive Web Design (RWD). “Now more than ever, we’re designing work meant to be viewed along a gradient of different experiences. Responsive web design offers us a way forward, finally allowing us to ‘design for the ebb and flow of things.'”

And that ebb and flow is now anticipating the i-watch, which presumably will have an even smaller screen. In that context RWD makes sense – your website will fit onto whatever screen people have now or may have in the future. Moreover Google recommends mobile friendly sites, and RWB in particular. Citing its own research it reports that “67% of users are more likely to buy from a mobile-friendly site, so if that site’s not yours, you’ll be missing out in a big way”.

So why be cautious about all this?
Take the Google research above. The difference between the 67% who apparently “prefer” a mobile friendly website and the 61% who don’t is not that great.  Secondly the results are all very subjective.  This is not a measure of actual behaviour but of how people think they behave – a notoriously unreliable measure of anything.

We don’t need to be in the dark about this.  Earlier Google research shows that while 65% plus are in fact starting their searches on mobile phones (they are always with you) the majority then complete their shopping back home on the laptop or desk-top.

So the choice is not to move from an “unfriendly” incompatible mobile phone website to another mobile phone website – it is to move from the hard to read and difficult to navigate phone site to the large, convenient and ultimately very friendly desktop site. In fact it is highlighting what is blindingly obvious – the screen on a mobile phone is too damn small to do your shopping. How on earth is this going to be better on a watch?

Why don’t we complete purchases on phones?
The figures, even in the new responsive and mobile friendly world, are clear. Mobify reports that “it doesn’t matter which category your business is in, it’s highly likely that your mobile conversion rates are still below 1%, even with a smartphone-optimized site”.  This is less than a third of the 3.11% conversion rate for desktop screens reported by Monetate.

Peep Laja of Conversion XL explains why. “If someone is undecided, they should feel free to explore and compare….the smaller screens of mobile devices make it impossible to display the same supporting information all at once. It’s harder for users to make product comparisons, supplemental information is often missing or hidden, and filtering tools are often limited. As a result, users sometimes feel that they’re not getting enough information to complete a purchase.”

Any attempt to hurry customers along with premature calls to action “forces the user to make a quick purchase decision, rather than giving a great shopping experience. To the user it feels like the site switches from giving enticement to issuing demands.”

Two cheers for Responsive Design
If we want to sell, persuade, inform or entertain on our website, which we surely do, making the site fit the technology rather than the technology support the site is the wrong way to go. RWD effectively puts companies like Apple in charge of how our websites look. And already we know that our browsing experience on phones, while very convenient, is ultimately less satisfying.

If our online experience is to be maximised, better to pursue a research-led approach to how consumers actually behave to inform how websites are designed and built.

While very attractive, the thousands of RWD templates now available on blogger and WordPress already come with many design restrictions – particularly in terms of layout and box size. We can’t alter this or the resizing technology won’t work.  Which means that how our website appears on the phone is actually dictating the look and layout of the website on the desktop computer screen.  “Non-Responsive” mobile friendly sites don’t do this – the desktop site and mobile version are purpose built in a different format making the experience best for both media.

Many responsive websites are slower to download.
Guy Podjarny has found that because many responsive websites download all or most of the desktop page payload, even if much of it is not displayed on screen, they are slow to download onto a phone. The result is a slower download speed than mobile friendly versions which leads to user frustration and switch off.

Responsive is also a one way street for the mobile user.  As Peep Laja concludes in an excellent article about optimising mobile phone shopping, the user may well want “the option to view an item on the full version of a website” with all of its accompanying infomation and context. “Although we don’t recommend forcing
people to use a PC-formatted website on mobile (it frustrates users
very quickly), giving them the option to do so feels like a service
rather than an imposition.  If nothing else, it can reassure users they’re not missing important
sales support information, making them more likely to go ahead with a
mobile purchase”.   Responsive design, in spite of its name, can’t do that.  WordPress devotees take note!

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