Guest Post: The case against responsive design on the personal mobile web

Carin Van Vuuren, CMO for Usablenet

Nowadays, if you talk to a web development team, you’re likely to hear them praising what has become a growing trend across the ecommerce landscape: responsive web design (RWD).

RWD is an approach to web development that many brands are gravitating towards to optimise their online content for multiple devices with varying screen sizes across traditional desktops, tablets, smartphones – and even those that have yet to be released.

Also known as “one-web” to emphasise the single set of code a responsive site is based on, RWD employs a single code base for all web experiences.

This allows web developers to apply a specific style sheet to a page, based on the screen, size in order to display content relative to the size and orientation of its screen.

It also means a single “device-agnostic” URL structure, resulting in a non-competing SEO format with link equity and a reduced need to maintain separate channels and sites.

Amid an overwhelming amount of mobile options and solutions, it is easy to see why RWD’s singular code seems like an alluring universal panacea for mobile optimisation.

However, it may not represent the best option for organisations in the travel industry that are aiming to deliver unique and innovative experiences to customers.

When the only changing factor in the web experience is the user’s device, RWD can be an appropriate solution.

However, its resizing logic presumes that the features and flow of the desktop website will work well for the mobile experience without considering user context.

Travel businesses need to appreciate the different interactions on each device; mobile users can swipe the screen to reveal new content, whereas those using a monitor are restricted to clicking and scrolling.

These distinctly different journeys and users need to be properly considered if brands are to reap the reward of mobile marketing.

In addition, content delivery on responsive sites has the potential to deter users. For instance, if you are trying to deliver complex functionality built with CSS, JavaScript, Ajax, and other heavy Web development technologies, pages will be heavy and the experience will be dramatically slower on a smartphone or tablet. 

In comparison, device-specific sites can be developed with HTML5 to add functionality and deliver adaptive user-experiences.

These benefits have been fully understood by our team at Usablenet, as the platform ensures that any content is kept readable and understandable across every device.

Time lost equals potential customers lost, as page load times have a direct impact on your ability to deliver users a positive experience.

Busy customers wishing to check room availability or seasonal offers, for example, may be put off by excessive page loading times.

A well-established principle when developing user experiences is the “two-minute rule”, which sets a maximum time of two minutes for the user to achieve their goal.

Beyond device-specific content display, the two other pieces to consider when designing your mobile strategy are use case and context, two realms in which responsive design does not contribute meaningfully.

Use case covers the driving reasons behind a user’s foray on to your mobile site – what the user is looking to do and how it can be accomplished on your site.

Take an airline website, for example. When a user visits an airline’s site from their smartphone, they typically want to be able to do a few very specific things like check their flight status, check-in for a flight, or access local information related to their destination.

 The user expects a completely different experience from when they access the airline site from a computer, which more easily facilitates detailed flight searches.

Responsive design implicitly suggests that mobile is a subset of the traditional web, but it is clear that people use mobile for a very different end. User experience and context are the new benchmarks of a mature mobile strategy and should drive the decisions that brands make when designing mobile experience.

The convenience of remote access and a new reliance upon the delivery of information when and where little to none was previously available has caused M-commerce to mushroom.

When developing approaches to engaging customers via mobile, it is vital that brands ensure their strategy accounts for the rising expectations that customers have for this important channel. It is a necessity that the companies providing services to travellers deliver the best experience for their customers, who are invariably on the move for either business or pleasure.

Brands must decide what kind of mobile experience they wish to create before it is possible to ascertain whether adopting a responsive design approach is suitable. In the travel industry, where companies by and large want customers to interact with and explore their offerings, it is hard to imagine a huge number of instances when this would be the case.

Although responsive design can help to achieve a certain measure of consistency across channels, the real prize lies with the ability to create unique experiences, harnessing the potential offered by each channel.

Brands that are happy to settle for a “one size fits all” approach are not using the opportunities that technology offers for developing more engaged, more loyal customers but are instead treating it as an impact to be mitigated.

We should be looking beyond the device to the people who will be using it.

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