“Against” Responsive Design

Responsive design is all the rage. But should readers be given the chance to view the shrunken site as if using a desktop browser? Are there limits for complex websites?

Mobile responsive website designs are all the rage. And for good reason. Designing sites and web applications that preserve their basic content and mark up across devices of all sizes, using now well-supported CSS (and very judicious additional client-side scripting) to adjust their behavior based on the end-user’s device, just “makes sense.” Ignoring small-display devices is not an option. Isn’t this so much more elegant than having completely separate and device-dependent code deliver entirely different website versions to mobile devices? Mobile-responsive designs are heralded as an advance in terms of user friendliness over both websites designed only for the full-sized browser window and over cut-down mobile-specific sites. But are there times when the responsive design itself limits end-user options in an unfortunate way? Unlike with “mobile only” site variants there is simply no way, in a responsive design, to have a button or toggle to allow the mobile user to see a shrunken-down version of what she would see in a large-screen browser window. Is that something we should be allowing for?

Mobile experience is important. Google even rewards mobile-friendly sites with a special little “mobile friendly” label in the search results (that appears only when searching on phones or other small-screen devices). Google also offers guidance and a tester to help webmasters earn that little results-pages label. What’s more, since mid-2013 Google has penalized in its ranking certain common, mobile-unfriendly, mistakes and now appears to affirmatively reward good mobile experience. Furthermore, there are reports that mobile devices now account for a rather large total share of searches. This likely matters more in some industries than others — the reports that a large share of mobile searches result in telephone calls indicates that “directory” uses may still prevail on the phone. But it would be foolish to assume that real transactions, including legal research and law school or law library interactions, aren’t happening on phones and tablets.

In my chapter on law library websites in Elyssa Kroski’s Law Librarianship in a Digital Age I included only a short passage on mobile development and responsive design. Apart from a discussion of content-management systems, the chapter focused more on the possible administrative hurdles and editorial challenges for libraries publishing on the Web. I did critique, in passing, mobile-only variants that omit some content or navigation tools but don’t provide a link to allow the mobile user to view, however shrunken and compromised it might be on the small screen, the full version of the website. My concern was specifically that mobile users are serious and do sometimes want the full experience of your website. They aren’t all just looking up the phone number or email address! And locking, deliberately or inadvertently, mobile users out from the full experience is problematic.

Responsive designs, at least well-thought-out ones that fully consider mobile experience, should sidestep that problem by delivering all the content of a page to all devices with a layout that re-flows dynamically to the size of the viewport. Blocks of text or images that sit side by side on the desktop, for example, stack up vertically on the mobile device. There are a number of law school and library websites that effectively use mobile-responsive designs.

But do even responsive designs still risk losing something? Is there still some advantage in allowing the phone user to over-ride the designer’s expectations and view the website “as if” on a larger screen, shrunken down to fit? (I have occasionally felt this when looking at responsive websites on an iPhone.) Complex sites with multiple menus, including sub-level menus within sub-pages, are an example that comes to mind where the “responsive” rendition might not suit every mobile-device user (or where the overall design might be re-conceived to work responsively, but only by sacrificing some elegance or simplicity for desktop users).

I’m not sure. This is something about which I’ve only begun to think, and the web design and UX communities are undoubtedly far ahead of me. Is the real answer that truly good responsive designs should so fully meet the user’s needs that this wouldn’t be necessary or even “feel” necessary? Is what I’m experiencing just sub-optimal design rather than a fundamental limitation or weakness of responsive design? Does “mobile first” design solve this problem? Are there features that we still need that can’t be mobile first?

Do we turn “full circle” and resort to developing “desktop specific” templates to deploy instead of our main page only when the user somehow indicates that he has screen real-estate to spare, or wants the “big” version anyway?

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One thought on ““Against” Responsive Design

  1. Andrew Plumb-Larrick Post author

    Just came across Planning for Performance, a book excerpt on A List Apart that addresses another set of concerns about the potentially massive “weight” of very dynamic and media-drenched websites that delivery all their code for all devices in keeping with responsive design practices (e.g. Disney’s allegedly 80MB responsive website), and calls for responsible delivery of responsive sites. From Responsible Responsive Design. (The particular excerpt also includes a very nice summary of all of the steps of the critical path from the initiation of a page request to the complete delivery of the website.)

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