Responsive Web Design Vs. Dedicated Mobile Sites: An Ongoing Debate

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Mobile browsing being all the rage these days, businesses and organizations inevitably bring up the topic when consulting with potential web design companies in Toronto. You can’t walk ten feet without almost bumping into someone engaged by a mobile device, so it’s no wonder clients are curious – they want their site to be the one occupying people’s attention on the street, on the bus, or wherever life dictates.

Without context, simply declaring one method of web design superior to the other has about as much value as pitting a sweatshirt against a T-shirt – you can only begin to make a case for a winner when you can evaluate them against present conditions. In the case of designing a website, you have to consider factors like the amount and type of content, which impacts loading times, and the skill level of the team wielding the tools. (Likewise, the clothing debate ought to depend on the weather of the day in question – unless you call the Arctic home, in which case the sweater always wins out.)

Working responsibly with responsive design

In the right hands, web design and development tools can be used to create an award-winning site; just as in the wrong hands those same tools can become accessories to a crime against the senses. Responsive web design requires a high degree of skill to be pulled off effectively, since you essentially have to create a single site that displays well across a broad spectrum of devices and screen resolutions.

Images, text, contact forms, logos, etc. must be prepared for any and every eventuality depending on the screen-size of the device – a desktop, a laptop, a tablet, a smartphone, and any number of size variations within each family. Considerations are presentation-based (how do these elements display in each screen) rather than performance-based (what kind of work is going on behind the scenes to make things happen). Also, search engines like Google need to index only a single site, and all pages use the same series of URLs.

Mobile: light or flight

The major reasoning behind creating a separate, dedicated mobile site is user experience. Quite simply, because most websites are still designed primarily with larger screens and more powerful operating systems in mind, those same sites don’t translate as well to smaller, less robust devices. Like a featherweight fighter trying to hack it in the heavyweight division, a mobile device attempting to render a content-loaded site will appear out of its league – and ultimately it’s the user who will throw in the towel.

Distinct mobile sites offer a pared-down browsing experience, one that lets users experience the core elements of the desktop version, and where possible incorporates new and unique capabilities for good measure. But it’s up to a website design team, in consultation with the client, to extract and present those key elements in a mobile-optimized fashion.

So when does mobile trump responsive web design? It’s part of an important conversation to have – early – with a prospective web company. If you already have a website as well as access to user statistics, you can define your visitors. A heavy concentration of mobile-users should indicate to you the value of a dedicated mobile site. Or when speaking to a web design company you might find that a slimmed down version of the new desktop site would be most effective; in which case responsive design could handle your needs well.

While the debate rages on among web designers, the only thing that emerges from the clamour so far is that the good, old days of desktop-centric thinking are long gone; you might as well be giving kids directions on the fastest way off your lawn.

The question, then, shouldn’t be: “Which approach is best?” But rather: “Which web design company can find and execute the best approach for me?”

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