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Mobile web or Responsive Web Design?

Same goal, different method

A boom in mobile technology in recent years means that the internet can now be accessed from a wide range of different devices, from computers to smartphones to tablet devices. As a result, the development of mobile websites has become necessary to ensure that content is optimised for viewing via different mediums.

In 2010, prominent web designer and developer Ethan Marcotte suggested the concept of Responsive Web Design (RWD), to achieve the same goal as mobile websites using an alternative method. RWD is the use of a single fluid grid-based layout that allows it to respond to the size of the  display of a device, catering for the needs of the user no matter how they access the website. Since Marcotte's proposal, the idea has gathered momentum and 2012 is expected to see a growing trend in this field among designers and developers.

There are many arguments both for and against RWD. On the positive side, it saves development time because there is only one set of HTML code; and in design terms, there is no need to create a separate mobile website, avoiding multiple sets of extensions and amendments whenever changes are required.

Content-driven websites pose a challenge

Potential problems include the differing functions and user experiences of smartphones and tablet devices when compared with desktop computers and laptops. It is also important to consider that many websites are very content-driven and feature lots of text and images. The latter can take a long time to load and aren't ideal for mobile devices, as mobile users tend to want quick, precise information. It is therefore better if content is condensed for small devices.

Many companies already favour the mobile web – and, following investment in this, it is unlikely that they will be willing to switch to RWD. However, there are examples of websites which use RWD very effectively. The success of an RWD website can be measured by looking at its intended purpose – to be accessible to users across a range of different screens and devices – and see how well it performs. For example, the layout of the Boston Globe website translates well into a linear format. The navigation changes into a drop-down menu to save space, while sections and articles fall neatly into a logical order, producing an accessible user experience.

The advantages and disadvantages of RWD compared with the mobile web suggest that a wise solution may be to use the advantages of both. For example, using the mobile web's ability to optimise content and use smaller image file sizes; and RWD's fluid grid, which allows content to adapt to the device on which it is viewed. The internet is in a constant state of change, and even if RWD isn't used in its entirety, designers and developers are increasingly likely to adopt its principles into their work.

Chris Au

[Screen capture (top): Ethan Marcotte's Responsive Web Design from abookapart.com.] 

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