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What is ‘Responsive Web Design” and should you need to know about it

With the advent of new mobile devices taking a serious role in the market we are seeing as much as 15% - 25% of web visitors to sites browsing via these mobile devices including smart phones and tablets. The problem as we are all aware is that a web page that displays nice and neatly and clearly visible on your desktop browser just doesn't always cut it on an iPhone. Most are acceptable on your iPad but it is the smartphone browser we are most concerned with.

Responsive design is where web designers are paying some serious attention as it provides the means of quite simply redefining how your web page is presented depending on the device being used. The beauty is that it does this automatically for you - text and images are optimally re-sized and elements in your page are re-positioned to best suite that device.

What does this really mean and how does it look?  A great example can be seen at The Boston Globe. At right you can see how the page looks on your normal desktop - you will see that there is a wide masthead area with various column arrangements for the content shown below. Normally such a page would be impossible to read on a device such as an iPhone without you having to zoom in on areas that look like they may be possibly of interest. However as this site has been designed with responsive design, when viewed on a device such as the iPhone the layout is automatically adjusted to something as you see in the second screen shot shown below.

To see how this works, view the page in your desktop browser and then re-size your browser window manually dragging the width down to a narrow page and watch what happens to the content of that page. Notice how the columns of content adjust themselves?

With a well designed and correctly coded website you can achieve this however there are some issues with browser compatibility that can lead to problems. Essentially the browser needs to support CSS3 media queries and as is too often the case Internet Explorer is the biggest are of incompatibility. Not so much the browser as IE9 dos support this however it is the problem with so many users not updating their IE version which causes the biggest grief.

If we consider who this is really targeted for - mobile device users then our issues can be mitigated as the percentage of these device browsers that are compatible is much higher.  So does it really matter if Responsive Design is not supported? Web browsers simply ignore anything they do not understand.  This behaviour creates the basis for backwards compatibility on the web.  In fact, it's possible for a modern HTML5 web page to be usable with a text-only browser. Consequently, your website can utilize CSS3 media queries to create a responsive design while still addressing browsers and devices that do not yet support this technique.

So should you be concerned about responsive design - should you insist on this as part of your website design requirements? It is going to depend on your market profile, their level of use of mobile devices and the content in your website. You should also bear in mind the cost as there is additional overheads with developing such design layouts. There is a small matter of general experience of your developers. Not all developers have got their head around responsive design just yet and we are only just starting to see new sites being rolled out with this included.

So what should you do about it? There is an alternative. Not only can it be more cost effective but also an approach more appropriate to your needs. We suggest that in many cases our clients actually have a special version of their website designed just for mobile devices (see our story Web Design for Mobile Devices). With our CMS platform, Business Catalyst, this is quite straight forward and automatically facilitated. Why is this better - simply because the content you want or should be delivering through a website being viewed on an iPhone should not be your full site. Instead provide  cut-down version that  specifically addresses your real needs for delivering content appropriate to the type of user.

If you want to know more about responsive web solutions or web sites ready for mobile browsing then get in contact with us. We have already provided a number of clients with such solutions.

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