Responsive web design? If you’re reading this article, you’ve probably heard the term before and you could probably even give a pretty accurate definition of it. But as with any tech buzzword, there’s a lot of misinformation surrounding this concept, and we’d like to help clear some of it up.

I rounded up four arguments that are frequently cited in articles urging your company to embrace responsive web design. For each argument, I’ll provide a source so that you can see what they say to support it. Then I’m gonna tear it to bits.

“Responsive is the future of the web.”

Example: http://mashable.com/2012/12/11/responsive-web-design/

The statistics are staggering. Mobile traffic is skyrocketing as users are able to do more and more things on their phones that a few years ago could only be done on full-size computers, such as shopping or booking vacations. If you want mobile users to pay attention to you, your website needs to be convenient to them.

But convenient is not the same as responsive. This is something I’ll be coming back to in most of the other myths below. Many of the arguments you’ll see in favor of responsive design are actually simply arguments for an intentional mobile experience. Responsive web design is one method to achieve a mobile experience, but don’t confuse the goal for the means.

Mobile is the future of the web. Responsive web design is part of that future, but it is not the whole thing by any means.

“Everybody’s doing it.”

Example: http://visual.ly/infographic-2013-year-responsive-design

The expected rebuttal to “everybody’s doing it” is the thing about jumping off a bridge (which now has a great rebuttal of its own). I’m not going to go there. Instead, I’m going to challenge the assertion. I tested out twelve very well-known sites to see whose was responsive and whose was not. Here’s what I found.

Responsive:

  • Microsoft
  • FedEx
  • Google Plus

Not responsive:

  • Twitter
  • Google (homepage)
  • LinkedIn
  • Amazon
  • Apple
  • Facebook
  • YouTube
  • eBay
  • USPS

The sites in the second list all implement user-agent detection and redirect to separate mobile sites. It’s clearly not for lack of resources, and it’s not because they’re behind the times. These companies all spent a great deal of effort coming up with their mobile strategy and they ultimately decided that responsive web design was not part of it.

News sites and blogs are the only type of website that consistently incorporate responsive web design. E-commerce sites aren’t too far behind, but notice that Amazon and eBay both fall in the second list above.

So no, not everybody is doing it.

Want to test out a few of your favorites? Just pull up a website on your desktop or laptop computer and resize the browser window size to the width of your phone. If the site layout rearranges itself and you don’t see a horizontal scroll bar at the bottom, then it’s responsive. (Or in Firefox, hit Ctrl+Shift+M to bring up Responsive Design View on the current tab.) You may be surprised.

“If your site isn’t responsive, you’re losing customers.”

Example: http://www.forbes.com/sites/joshsteimle/2013/11/08/why-your-business-needs-a-responsive-website-before-2014/

In the opening sentence of this article, the author boldly states that if “your business isn’t taking advantage of responsive web design right now … you are in danger of going out of business in 2014.”

He goes on to exempt businesses who already have another mobile strategy, but this is more of an afterthought. The myth has already been perpetuated. The article’s takeaway for a less-tech-savvy reader is to be scared into believing that a non-responsive website is equal to money down the drain.

What the author means to say is that if you don’t cater to mobile users, you’re going to lose them. This is true, but it’s not what he said. Once again, we see someone describing a very real problem in order to prove the value of responsive design, even though there may be much better solutions than responsive design depending on the situation.

Understand that your customers don’t care if your website is responsive. Users don’t know the difference between a responsive website and a dedicated mobile website—they just want it to work and to be easy to use. The specific technology is not important. The experience and engagement is what matters.

“Responsive is much simpler to develop.”

Example: http://www.sitepoint.com/7-responsive-web-design-tips/ (number 1)

Are responsive sites simpler and cheaper to develop? Only for web development companies in the template business. If all of your websites follow the same basic layout and never “color outside the lines”, you can pretty easily develop a responsive framework based on grids and patterns and then reuse it on every site you build.

But if the agency designs all of their sites from scratch, not necessarily following the same patterns each time, responsive becomes much more complicated. The simplicity and ease of development comes from building everything according to a formula, whether responsive or not. That’s not us.

It can also restrict creative freedom because the design must follow a rough layout predetermined by the technology. And here’s the thing: I’m the code guy. I shouldn’t be giving the designer a list of rules to follow.

So yes, in some cases, responsive sites are simpler to develop. Some agencies will even include it in the base cost of all of their websites. But there tends to be an inverse correlation between how easily a site can be made responsive, and how creative or innovative the site is. And around here, we love creativity.

Our approach

How do we approach the question of reaching your mobile audience? First and foremost, we listen. We don’t decide on an approach until we understand you, your audience and the message you want to communicate. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions around here.

That said, for most clients who need a mobile strategy, we tend to recommend what we call a dual-interface approach. The content and administrative interface are the same, but mobile users see a different front-end of the site than desktop or tablet users. Often this is the best of both worlds—it has the advantages of responsive design (a single content source) and of separate mobile sites (resource efficiency, customized user experience), but with very few of the disadvantages of either method. It’s also generally more cost-effective since we don’t have to write every line of code with every possible device in mind, and we don’t have to scale back the creativity of the full site in order to accommodate mobile traffic. (By the way, this is the same approach that is used by each of the sites in the “Not responsive” list above. They all have mobile-enabled sites, they just aren’t responsive.)

And responsiveness may play a part in this approach as well. We might make the desktop site responsive down to iPad resolution, while the mobile site will adapt to the variations in screen size between different mobile devices (such as an iPhone vs. a Galaxy S4). But responsive design is just one tool in our toolbelt—it’s not the whole belt.

Keep an open mind

Many people will read articles like the ones I linked above and come away fixated on the idea that a responsive website is the right solution and anything else is a compromise.

There was a segment on Jimmy Kimmel Live a few months ago where they asked people on the street whether they supported Obamacare or the Affordable Care Act. Here it is:

Nearly all of the respondents in the video said they supported the Affordable Care Act but thought Obamacare was bad for America. The joke, of course, is that they’re the same thing. “Obamacare” is the term that’s used in negative press, while “Affordable Care Act” (the actual name of the legislation) is used by neutral or favorable press. The people on the street just repeated what they had heard without actually understanding it.

If your company is building a new website, this can be a very expensive attitude to have. Don’t confuse “responsive website” with “well-thought-out mobile strategy”. Depending on your industry, a responsive site may be a requirement—but it may also be a careless waste of resources in the name of following a trend.