One size doesn't fit all - mobile sites vs responsive design

By Rob Varney

Foolproof ran a webinar recently on Understanding & Winning the Mobile Consumer. During the Q&A someone asked the question ‘what about mobile sites versus responsive design?’ prompting me share my thoughts on the subject.

It’s been suggested that responsive design is a silver bullet for solving the problem of platform divergence, and unifying the digital experience across different devices. But implying that responsive design is the panacea we’ve been waiting for, is akin to proposing that the drawstring trouser is a clothing cure-all. It functions, but it may not fit as well as it should.

People spend a lot of money on their mobile devices, enthralled by the promise of new possibilities. They expect brands to deliver something delightful but this is not the typical experience when using a site based on responsive design; what you end up with is often the bare acceptable minimum; a halfway house on the way to what people really want on their shiny new gadget. Indeed, 47% have stopped using a brand completely because of a poor mobile product or service not being good enough (Going Mobile 2012).

One of the big advantages of creating a responsive site is that it saves cost and time, both in development and content management, but unless the product is sufficiently tailored to the device and operating system to take advantage of its characteristics, a rather vanilla, sub-optimal experience is often the result.

The development of native apps to target specific use cases, coupled with a specific mobile site for others may be more expensive in development costs but it will certainly offer a much better experience and more satisfied customers than responsive site design can hope to achieve.

Mobile is changing how consumers interact with brands and for some brands it may end up being the primary channel for interaction. Facebook is a great example of this. It’s actually more convenient to use Facebook via a mobile device then through any other means today (take posting photographs as an example) and it allows this interaction on the move in otherwise dead time; something which consumers really appreciate.

If brands want this level of engagement, and to fend off competitive offerings, then they need to get serious about mobile now. Getting it right can get a brand deeply embedded into their customer’s daily routine.

If you really want to come up with a winning mobile experience then you need to take time to assess the features and functionality (or indeed, lack thereof) that each target device has. Consider how you can make the most of geo-location tools, gyroscopes, synchronisation with the user’s contact list or mail software and create a seamless flow through your assets to the device.

Flickr have got the balance right. The experience ‘feels’ the same across platforms, but features and content have been altered to create the most effective experience for each. (Yahoo! login journey notwithstanding.)

The principle of responsive design isn’t wrong, but it is the money saving, rather than value creating approach to mobile design. Consumers want experiences that are tailored to their specific device rather than the one size fits all experience, and brands need to give this thought series consideration if they want delighted and engage their customers.

I mean, you couldn’t turn up to every social engagement in a romper suit.

Rob Varney

My goal is to help design the best design agency in the world. I'm the Experience Design Director at Foolproof, and responsible for the quality of ideas and insight we generate for our clients. It's been my pleasure to find, build and motivate a team of talented designers, developers and research consultants over the last four years.

View Rob's profile

What do you think?