Do You Need Responsive Design?

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responsive design

Don’t you love the acronyms and buzzwords that float around in the WordPress world? CPM, SAAS, CSS. Engagement, consumption, and sharing are big too, but the phrase I see more than any other is “responsive design.”

A web design is responsive if it presents different formatting and layouts to suit the device on where the pages are displayed. When the page loads, the browser automatically chooses the appropriate style to use, which frees developers and programmers from having to maintain different sets of pages for different display types.

With the proliferation of handheld and mobile devices, the word on the street would have you believe that you must have a mobile site and responsive design to go along with it. But do you really?

A recent Performance Study by Smashing Magazine focused on the responsive design process. The article’s author, Ben Gremillion points out that while the term “responsive design” is relatively new, there are hundreds of mobile and widescreen themes, both paid and free of charge, for popular content management systems such as WordPress, Drupal, Joomla and ExpressionEngine. These themes are varied and not created with any kind of standardized technique, features or attention to detail. But do you really need to go down the responsive design road? Here are some highlights from the article to answer that question.

Does Your Site Warrant a Mobile Version?

Before you decide which theme to use, there are other considerations you should take before deciding if you even need responsive design in the first place. Gremillion urges that CAN and SHOULD are two very different things in regard to this question. If your site uses complicated graphics like tables, multi-month calendars, pixel-heavy detailed images or other features that are difficult to use on small screens, you may be better off sticking with the big screen.

At the very least, ask yourself how would the layout, formatting and content would change on a smaller device.Smaller screens mean that your content must be clean and free from excess, font sizes must be appropriate for the size of the screen and the right elements placed in the right order to facilitate easy use. You must also account for the limited attention span of the mobile user. The user is on the move; he doesn’t have time for lengthy page reads or complicated graphics. He will likely scroll past what is on the first screen she sees to get to the juicy parts of the site he needs. He also needs more contrast between the text and background for better visibility outdoors and the fewer the taps between pages, the better.

If your site doesn’t respond well to this kind of paring down, you may be better to NOT go mobile, or at the very least, as Gremillion points out, “consider using a device-agnostic approach to Web design focusing on content rather than device properties.”

When Do You Need a Separate Mobile Site?

Gremillion points out that even if your full-size site is too big to be automatically rearranged for mobile by a responsive theme, you can still create a separate mobile site that carries essential information organized for mobile use — and then find out what mobile users are missing.”

Does Size Matter?

If you do decide to go responsive, and use a theme to help you do it, you want one that not only provides the ease of transforming your site to fit different screen sizes, you also want to make sure it doesn’t hamper your site’s responsiveness or performance.

Gremillion tested response time and performance on 40 different WordPress themes and the stock Twenty Ten and Twenty Eleven themes to track their response times in fetching information. He found that the number of files that a theme loads and the theme’s weight in kilobytes have no direct relationship, and most make 25 requests or fewer. Based on that, large themes like Twenty Ten and Twenty Eleven do pretty well, but there are others that can do better in terms of response time and capabilities.

So while it’s not really the size of the theme that matters, its response time and capabilities ARE important in responsive design. The article uses comparative data to make the argument this way, “Because data costs money for people who are accessing the Web through cellular networks, themes that require fewer downloads per page load are more likely to earn repeat visits.”

In Conclusion

Gremillion’s methodology and recommendations are solid. It make take some time to analyze whether or not your site will do well as a mobile version, but it’s well worth it. Otherwise, you could waste extensive development time on a version of your site that’s ineffective or unprofitable.

Have you done this type of analysis for your site already? What was your conclusion? Do you use a responsive design theme on your site now? Share your story with us in the comments section below.

Comments (1)

  • Comment by Elliott Richmond
    Elliott Richmond

    Interesting article, my site is responsive and I have done the analysis but only since being responsive. Before that there was no data to analyse; having been responsive for over 12 months now the figures are not as I would have imagined to be honest.
    About 20% of traffic is mobile and tablet, of that 20% it’s 50/50 mobile and tablet, the 50/50 just means that the balance between mobile and tablet are pretty competitive however, the 20% just makes me think I might have my marketing slightly wrong and with some of the points you’ve raised I should probably be asking myself some questions about my site – great post! It’s a shame there is no ‘subscribe to comments’ option as I would like to see how this thread develops :-/