What Is Responsive Design, and Why Do You Need It?

Responsive or scalable design continues to be the favorite child of cutting edge web designers everywhere, but many still don’t grasp the details and advantages of the approach over traditional web design. Today, we’ll take a close look at what responsive design entails, what it offers, and what to look out for as you implement it.

What is responsive design?

Responsive design refers to an approach to web design meant to produce websites viable for a wide range of devices. It differs from other approaches to delivering content to mobile devices in that there’s only one version of the site, which scales and adjusts to match any visitor’s needs. It eliminates the need for a separate mobile website and folds mobile development and desktop development into a single design process.

There are a few approaches to scalable design, but most utilize a tile-based system which repositions and scales elements to fit comfortably on the user’s screen, whatever the size may be. A user with plenty of screen real estate will see more at once, but a user on a mobile device will receive roughly the same experience. If certain elements need to be arranged in a specific way for graphic design reasons, it’s easy to maintain those design elements across devices while allowing other elements to scale and adjust around them.

Of course, this may sound interesting but not particularly useful, especially if you already have an effective mobile site in place for non-desktop devices. To help you understand why so many web designers are rushing to make the change, let’s take a look at some of the advantages offered by adopting responsive web development:

What advantages does responsive web development offer?

1. Versatility

Responsive websites are device-agnostic; that’s to say, any user who reaches your site will find your site works well. Tablet users and laptop users in the middle of screen real estate won’t struggle to use your desktop site or deal with a luckluster mobile alternative.

You also don’t need to worry as much about unusual devices, devices being sent to the wrong version of your site, and various other headaches. Even if unusual devices such as headsets or video game consoles access your site, your site will work fine if it’s built to be responsive. If some hot new device enters the market, it may not play well with your mobile website, but it will work just fine with a responsive site. The potential rise of wearable computing may make this a more immediate consideration than it first seems.

2. SEO

Google developers have noted a preference for responsive web development in the site’s algorithms, as a single responsive site offers a better link profile than a site split between a mobile site and a desktop site. You won’t have to worry about visitors to your site splitting their backlinks between two sites perceived by search engine web crawlers as completely different sites.

It’s also far easier to monitor the data necessary for effective SEO when you only need to look at one version of the site. Splitting incoming traffic and usage patterns between two sites can distort the data you use to optimize for search engines, especially if your customers aren’t cleanly segmented across mobile and desktop lines.

3. Consistency

Eliminating the split between mobile and desktop for your site unifies the user experience, allowing you to develop a more robust, meaningful understanding of the user experience and allowing users to transition seamlessly between their different devices. You don’t have to worry about parity between devices, lost or missing features, or the differences dissuading your visitors from checking in on different devices.

For many companies, maintaining a separate mobile site means one of the two sites will be inferior. This encourages guests to only access the site with the device which matches that version of the site. With scalable design, you eliminate that block to more frequent and consistent visits.

4. Efficiency

While a single responsive website may or may not be more complex to design than a single desktop site or mobile site, it’s going to be significantly easier to build, maintain, and monitor than two parallel sites. Mobile development ceases to be a significant factor in your web design, as the necessary functions for effective browsing on mobile devices become just another facet of a complete responsive website.

This cuts costs while improving the final website. You gain better data, a greater capacity for split tests, more flexibility in how you channel market segments through your sales funnel, etc., etc. It also minimizes the inevitable problems which arise when maintaining a separate mobile website, minimizing poor user experiences and the associated negative press.

Responsive website pitfalls to avoid

Animation problems. Some animations which look great on a modern desktop with plenty of processing power look sluggish and choppy on the relatively weak hardware of a smartphone. You have plenty to work with under the constraints of a smartphone browser—more than enough to make an excellent site.

Touch problems. Take time to test touch coordinates, as responsive sites can end up being unnecessarily difficult to navigate if the touch controls aren’t properly configured. Remember that touch coordinates and click coordinates aren’t necessarily going to be the same—and your responsive site will need to work with both.

Unexpected changes. Changes on a responsive site should be predictable and convenient. Make sure you take steps to deal with adjustments on the device side of the equation, such as built in styles, font adjustments, etc.

False positives. If you’re emulating different environments instead of testing your site with real hardware, you may see problems which wouldn’t really exist on the proper device. Do your testing with real devices as much as possible.