Is responsive web design really the future?

Written by
Durham

Responsive web design is definitely a big buzz topic in the web industry these days - but is it just another passing craze or is it genuinely the future?

What problems does it solve?

When assessing new technology, after the initial “oooohhhh - that’s cool” response, I try to work out if it solves any problems or just creates new ones. From a general view responsive design solves a huge problem quickly and easily - build one site and it works across all devices.

Building one site and it works across all devices means compromise. The industry as a whole is getting away from compromises such as supporting older browsers, but then adding in the compromises of responsive design. You probably wouldn't compromise how beautiful your site looks in Google Chrome so that it looks good in a minority browser like IE6 so why would you compromise your design to accommodate minority screen resolutions. And before anyone moans that they don’t compromise on their responsive designs, I am aware that there are a handful of exceptions and a lot does come down to content and a client's existing branding.

A recurring argument for responsive design is it’s future-proof. It turns out the sites I built 6-7 years ago before the smartphone, tablet and responsive boom are future-proof! I’ve viewed many of these sites on iPads, iPhones and Android phones and they work perfectly (well... as “perfectly” as they worked when they were originally made!). Yes, you have to zoom in to them to use them but then bare in mind none of these sites were ever intended to be viewed on anything other than the resolutions they were built for. New devices are made to handle older sites. Who knows what the future holds? Most sites will probably be “future-proof” regardless of if it’s responsive or not. Just about all sites need to be re-designed/re-built every few years to stay up-to-date anyway so why bother with responsive design?

Changes to workflow

Responsive web design should cater for all screen resolutions regardless of the device. This blog post advocates “designing to the extremes” then adding the responsiveness in the build phase. To me, this seems like one of the better responsive processes as you’d still have to design a ‘desktop’ and ‘mobile’ version as you would if you were making separate sites. On the downside, there would be a extra thinking time, as you’d have to constantly work out how you’d transition from one to the other.

Theoretically, building one website that covers all screen resolutions should take less build time than building separate tablet and mobile sites. Realistically, this is very dependent on the content and expectations of clients. A responsive site will look very similar across all devices: there should be little way in harnessing specific features of different devices. If you find yourself doing this then you should probably be building device specific websites so you can optimise the user's experience.

A major downside in the workflow would be when the design and build work needs to the split between between a team of designers and developers. When creating a separate desktop and mobile site you can divide the tasks much more easily into desktop design, mobile design, desktop build and mobile build. Following the responsive route would probably be more efficient with a single designer/developer doing the whole lot as it relies alot on their own vision of how it would work which would only be in their head.

Basically, to do responsive design or device separate design, both require planning. I think there are probably just as many pros and cons for each. It should all be based on how you and your team work and the client's requirements.

So... is it the future?

I think it’s part of the future, but not in the all encompassing way that it’s being sold as now. It’s not a one-size-fits-all (excuse the pun!) way of making websites. It shouldn’t be the go-to default. The way I see it at the moment is that mobile website is still quite a different beast to a tablet/desktop website, although this does depend on the content of the website. For example blogs generally fit into responsive designs quite nicely whereas large brand-heavy sites that require a greater level of brand immersion could be compromised, as a design that looks perfect on a 22” monitor is going to be compromised heavily on a mobile phone and vice versa.

Every new project should be assessed on which would work best and I think that, from my experience, the ideal way (with unlimited budget and time) would be a mixture of the 2. A ‘desktop’ responsive site that covers from tablet resolution and upwards and then a ‘mobile’ site that responsively covers all screen resolutions below.

So that's my thoughts. Why not share yours in the comments below...

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