Responsive Web Design vs. User Experience

Jan 18, 2013

Article ImageFrom traditional desktop PCs and laptops to smartphones, tablets, consoles, and interactive TVs, consumers are using more devices than ever before. That puts added pressure on digital content companies (DCCs) to ensure an ideal user experience when people switch between these various screens. As a result, many businesses are turning to responsive web design (RWD), which can create a single source of web content that displays in a readable and relatively controlled way anywhere it's viewed. RWD's single code base delivers to any screen, so that when a change needs to be made to a web page, it only needs to be done once, saving valuable time and money. Examples of digital publishers that have successfully adopted RWD include The Boston Globe, The Next Web, Time, Food Sense, PandoDaily, and Smashing Magazine.

But while RWD can, under ideal circumstances, adjust your content according to the device and enable more fluid and responsive interaction, it doesn't always work across the board and may not be the best option, especially compared to traditional user experience (UX) design, some experts say. "(RWD) works best with content-driven sites, as users are coming to consume content and not necessarily to interact," says J. Schwan, founder/CEO of Solstice Mobile. "RWD addresses content optimization and functionality for every screen size, whereas UX design focuses on understanding and designing a user experience from start to finish by tailoring the available features for each device. RWD doesn't necessarily care whether a user wants to purchase an airline ticket or zoom in on their favorite pair of shoes. By not addressing the significant changes in the end user's actions as they interact across platforms, RWD requires more work on the developer's part and fails to solve all usability issues."

Carin Van Vuuren, CMO for Usablenet, also has reservations about RWD. "If the only aspect changing in the web site design is the size of the device, RWD can be a useful solution, especially for content-heavy sites like newspapers," says Van Vuuren. "But it might not actually be the best option for companies aiming to deliver unique mobile and multichannel experiences to their customers. RWD does not take into account user context on mobile devices. Context on mobile is not just the fact someone is on a device with a smaller screen. It's the combination of the device they use, when they are trying to use it, and what they are trying to achieve."

Schwan argues that RWD is not the right choice when users perform a subset of their normal tasks on their mobile device, or a different set of tasks all together. "While RWD addresses changes in a page's layout, it doesn't address significant changes in a site's information architecture or the workflow a user may follow to complete a specific task," says Schwan. "In this situation, UX design is the best bet to ensure that usability and customer experience is optimized."

To offer mobile users the best possible experience, content, not just design and structure, needs to cater to different user needs, "which point to UX design as the best choice," Schwan says.

On the other hand, RWD is quickly becoming the standard in the industry and shouldn't be ignored, says Bob Egner, VP of product management for EPiServer. "RWD with personalized content is an effective approach, and though it's an upfront investment, your long-term cost of ownership is significantly lower than constantly (having to optimize) for new devices," Egner says. "With RWD, editors can write content, preview, and hit publish once and know it's available and optimized across all different devices."

Chip Evans, owner of Evans Design Studio, says if you don't have a specific need for a separate mobile version of your site or a compelling reason to ignore the rapidly growing mobile market, your website should incorporate RWD. He warns, however, that RWD - which is still in its early stages - can be problematic with older browsers and odd-sized view ports.

Additionally, RWD's "biggest disadvantage is load time, specifically for images," Drew Thomas, CCO for Brolik Productions, says. "As developers, we're accounting for a potentially huge screen size. So we need images as large as possible, and even if they're displayed on a small screen, we still have to load the large image."

In the big picture, Wade Devers, executive VP and group creative director for Arnold Worldwide, sees RWD as a passing fad. "Personally, I can't wait until the next thing," says Devers. "This year, it's all about RWD. Next year, I will be sitting in a room with the nerds and when I mention RWD, I will be subject to a round of guffaws and harrumphs."

In other words, don't get too heavily invested in RWD just yet.

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