Thoughts on responsive design for corporate sites

Although it’s encouraging to see acceptance of so many different new age-y philosophies and technologies in corporate web development projects, I’m always left skeptical and cautious when I see over-zealous advancement of ONE technology as the only way forward to replace all others that came before. When asked about the mobile option for a site, there are many options to choose from, each appropriate given a different set criteria (and responsive design could be one of those). And yet, often Responsive design/Mobile-first (being the buzz words of the day) get misunderstood the one and only solution now all other options of past eras were not as enlightened. I try again and again to convince them to not give in to over-simplification and explore different options. If I’m honest, it must sound tired by now. Some questions we ask are:

1. How much of your traffic is actually from mobile users? Does it make sense to impose a mobile-first approach for a corporate web site on users that have primarily been accessing that site from Internet Explorer on corporate desktops?

2. What are people primarily doing on your web site? How long do they spend on the web site? Which pages do they visit? Is the mobile experience to be the same as the desktop/tablet experience? What change do you want to effect on your users by reimplementing your site?

I don’t know about most people but when I use my mobile phone, I use apps to do quick and repetitive tasks. Read or retweet tweets, read news articles on the daily commute, send/receive IM messages away from the desk, play some fruit slashing game to kill time. I might not be as hip as other mobile users but I’d bet most other users typically perform these TYPE of activities too. I really don’t spend much time navigating a website on a mobile like I do on my laptop or desktop. It is not just painful but really not the type of activity I engage in when I’m not sitting at a desk or a living room.

So I get that a lot more people are buying mobiles and accessing the internet through their mobiles but I don’t think the data is consulted to show that mobile users are beating desktop/laptop users for USING the web sites. I say using instead of visiting because it may be that people are doing quick google searches to perhaps look up some information on a brochureware web site. Those hits in your analytics reports should be differentiated from those that actually use the website more extensively on laptops/desktops. I don’t believe most people care to spend much more time on your website on a small device unless you’ve put something repetitive/interactive on there that they find on apps. Stuff like news, forums might entice them to visit more frequently and for longer periods. Your core segments are still accessing your site from a BIG browser. You really shouldn’t be ignoring them.

Tablets are somewhat of a strange beast (as ar mini tablets). Where tablets are replacing laptops in the living room, meeting room, taxi or airport, it’s be interesting to see how users access corporate websites. Maybe some of them are genuinely interested in coming to your site and reading every single page on your departments, products, and policies. But more likely, they are using your site as a gateway to something else (a login page, a navigation shortcut, or some important bit of frequently changing info).

So why then the rush to do EVERYTHING using mobile first or responsive design? Is it easier? Is it a one time activity? Is it a compromise? My take on this is, it’s definitely not easy. Unless you’re starting from scratch, retrospectively making a website responsive isn’t easy or pretty. You need to design it like that from the ground up. Even if you have the opportunity to start over, if your desktop and mobile experiences need to be radically different, you need to rethink responsive design because there’s only so much you can do with CSS3 tweaks and Javascript trickery. Some customers might have seen this already by getting on the bandwagon and implementing a tablet-first site filled wide open white spaces and sliding galleries of photos. And after the fact, it’s too late to introduce a much richer/denser experience for a desktop user unless you make a completely different site. Soon they rethink their design.

Naturally, nothing is forever but redesign/reimplementation means more time/money which can sometimes mean never.

I think some lessons can be taken out of this:

1. Really think what your website is about and organize your information for different users/devices/etc and use data from analytics to back those. Brochureware sites aren’t the same as news sites or social networking sites or personal banking sites.

2. A desktop site may have hundreds of pages which may be hit by users browsing for longer periods of time but a mobile site is going to be a quick stop. No point doing a 1-to-1 mirror of your desktop site with all the same information. Conversely, doing a mobile-first design isn’t going to cover your desktop experience as it’s not a mobile-only world.

3. Responsive design might work for some range of mobile/tablet devices or among various desktop/laptop browsers but that does not mean the IA and experience is just going to get taken care of by ONE responsive design.

4. If you’re going to use a CMS or WCM to author your content and target various users, you might as well take the advantage of that to create separate experiences instead of shoehorning everything into one pattern.

I realize everybody wants ONE simple solution. Management would be happy, agencies could be happy, developers could be made happy but would be miserable implementing all devil-in-the-details differences that are actually there or required by different users. Ugly hacks to fill these gaps fool nobody and become painfully obvious after go-live so why do it? Why not have hard, honest discussions about the details before selecting responsive design as the next silver bullet?

Every other physical product we buy in the real world is sold in various forms because of segmentation. Why do we think we can cheat and offer the illusion of catering for different segments the web world?


– Sarwar Bhuiyan

Thoughts on responsive design for corporate sites

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