Adventures on the Misinformation Superhighway

by Jessica Ramesh Yard Digital

Adventures on the Misinformation Superhighway: Five Common Myths about Responsive Web Design

Ben Seven, Lead Designer and Mobile Strategist at Yard Digital, deconstructs some misconceptions about the mobile web

“There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share.” Steve Ballmer, Microsoft, April 2007

Whether it’s Twitter, ebooks or your biggest rival’s new mobile device, we’re highly sceptical of ‘new’ – until one day it becomes the new normal. We love to doubt; we see the hype bubble around a service, technology or technique and expect it to be just that – hype. ‘Expert’ commentators weigh in from various camps, and sadly they aren’t always fact-checked before being published. As a result, there’s a huge amount of incorrect information out there. It’s been sad to see responsive web design (RWD) – a technique for building websites using the same codebase to serve a flexible layout and feature set to a diverse set of devices – being rubbished by industry ‘experts’ whose comments reveal that while they might have heard of RWD, they’ve certainly never used it.

Myth 1: People want to do different things on mobile, so one adaptive experience is a bad idea

We can’t infer someone’s intentions purely from the device they’re using; perhaps what their screen size is and what their device itself is capable of, but little else. Yes, mobile device users are potentially distracted, out and about, with low bandwidth available. But they’re also at home, browsing while watching TV with plenty of time and the desire for – and the expectation of – access to all your features and content.

Regardless of how you implement a multi-device strategy, you need to be putting content and feature parity at the top of your list of priorities. And if the features and content are the same everywhere, why do they need to be served from a separate site? For more, check out Stephen Hay’s excellent article: bit.ly/themobilecontext

Myth 2: ‘Mobile-first?’ We should be thinking ‘user-first!’

Of course, any effective web experience has the user at its centre. But many critics throw around the phrase ‘mobile-first’ without understanding what it means. There are a few different contexts. Planning requires outlining the most important features of a site as a core experience for all and enhancing this, dependent on the capabilities available. The technical context involves loading layout and assets for smaller and less powerful devices first, then complex layout and larger images only for larger devices (meaning mobile devices have less to load). Brad Frost has an excellent article outlining the various meanings of mobile-first: bit.ly/mobile-first-meanings.

Most of the practical ‘mobile-first’ approaches already put the user first by considering all the ways they might access the site, the most important features and the user journey. This makes the argument for ‘user first’ more than invalid – it’s fundamentally misunderstanding the proposition.

Myth 3: Responsive sites are slower and have a healthier page load

Picture this headline in ‘Tradesman Monthly’: Building with Bricks Results in Squint Walls. Does it really, or might it be the builder’s fault? Blaming methodology for faults in implementation makes for a transparent argument. Sure, you might have seen a number of sites using RWD which are providing a desktop experience by default, then loading in extra for mobile layout. But this is as backwards as it sounds – mobile devices will load all the desktop page weight and more, possibly even hiding assets (which will still load), leading to longer loading and users going elsewhere.

If your developers aren’t following best practice and progressively enhancing your site from mobile-first upwards, that’s bad implementation rather than a methodology issue. You need to make sure that performance consideration is on your list of requirements, regardless of whether you’re using RWD or not. Even in 2013 we’re still seeing sites launch with so little consideration for low bandwidth contexts that their page weight is comparable to an MP3 download, and it’s ridiculous.

Myth 4: A responsive approach takes more code and more testing

Naturally, building experiences for different devices instead of our classic fixed-width desktop website is going to take more code – we’re aiming to serve a wider, more diverse audience. This is regardless of approach, RWD or not. And in the same way we’ll traditionally test in a variety of web browsers on different platforms, we need to build for these contexts, carrying out our due diligence by testing on a wide range of web-capable devices too. The alternative is to stick your head in the sand, which your competitors will thank you for. The web is changing, and keeping up with that means working hard to serve your visitors – especially in a time when rivals might be winning your customers through better serving visitors wherever they’re browsing.

Myth 5: Responsive sites take more time and are more expensive

In our experience, building responsively requires a shift for any design and development team in terms of mental models, with working practices changing appropriately. This, at least initially, will cost – an investment, if you will, in bringing back a more flexible web (the world’s first ever web page was ‘responsive’ – we’re the ones who have broken things by believing we can apply a fixed size to our layouts!).

As far as taking longer, the question here is weighing up the time taken to commission and build the equivalent multi-device support using separate sites. The reality will vary by project, but I’m sure you can imagine which is easier to maintain (not to mention the SEO and social share benefits of content on a single URL, regardless of device).

‘M-dot’ sites have worked well for handheld users: but with the arrival of category-breakers like seven-inch tablets, the classic ‘desktop/handheld’ split is being challenged by devices that don’t really suit either notion for layout. What happens next, a third ‘T-dot’ site? This simply doesn’t scale; what about ‘TV-dot’? How many sites do you want to maintain?

Mobile traffic isn’t going away, and we’re increasingly seeing the abandonment of ‘mobile’ as a notion anyway – web users are web users, and choosing to support any diversity in the device or browser landscape will involve consideration, careful planning and testing regardless of the methodology used.

As far as RWD gaining ground, any approach that Google recommends to developers, and which household names such as the BBC and Microsoft end up implementing, is probably worth further consideration. For us, building beautiful cross-device web experiences isn’t an optional extra; it’s a fundamental baseline to serve today and tomorrow’s web landscape.