Separate Mobile Site or Responsive Design: How Do You Choose?
So your client comes to you for a website redesign, and hallelujah, they’ve seen where the market is going, and they want to make sure their new site is mobile friendly. You have several paths available to you, including building a separate mobile site or choosing a responsive design strategy. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. How do you choose?
Take a deep breath and set aside whatever personal preferences you may have developed. It’s time to take a look at the needs of the project and its end users.
Begin by Asking Questions
What are your users’ goals?
When someone visits your site, what are they looking for?
- Do they just want to pass the time?
- Are they doing research?
- Are they checking on the status of something?
- Do they have an urgent task to perform?
- Are they urgently looking up information?
The goals of your user should inform not only the design of your mobile site, but the design of your site overall.
What devices are they using?
- Who is your audience? Where are they located geographically? The distribution of phones in the United States will be different from Europe or Africa, and each of those regions is located on a different point in the smartphone adoption trend. (Europe is ahead of the US, Africa is behind.)
See Tomai T. Ahonen’s Communities Dominate blog for a detailed breakdown by geographical region.
- Check the site’s log files. Google Analytics logs which browsers have hit your site. From there, you can infer screen size and resolution. If you choose responsive design, this will help you establish the points where the layout of your content will change.
Regardless of your strategy, make sure you test your site on the devices your audience will be using!
The above graphic is from metaltoad.com.
- Pay attention to current sales trends and the state of the market. Yes, the mobile market is competitive and rapidly evolving. While there’s no way we can accurately predict the future, it’s still beneficial to keep an eye on what’s coming around the next bend in the road. One resource is Gartner Research.
Do you want to serve the user the exact same content in the mobile environment?
- Pros: don’t set up expectations in one environment that are not deliverable in another. As Jeremy Keith wrote in his Adactio blog,
“More and more people are using mobile devices as their primary means of accessing the web… They are looking for the same breadth and richness of experience that they’ve come to expect from the web on other devices. Hence the frustration with mobile-optimised sites that remove content that’s available on the desktop-optimised version.”
Be wary of making assumptions about your user’s context!
Assumption: You mobile user wants focused content, easily accessible, and has a bad internet connection.
Reality: All of your users want easily-accessible, focused content. All of them want content that downloads quickly. Some of them may have bad internet connections, but be wary of limiting the mobile experience based on your assumptions. Yes, someone browsing a restaurant website may just need the address for driving directions or the phone number to place a reservation. However, they could just as easily be sprawled on the couch at home, watching TV, with a speedy internet connection, looking for a great menu and ambiance for a Friday night date.
- Cons: Sometimes, there’s a lot of content, both to arrange for a small screen and for the user to download. Ask yourself, “Can some of the content can be left out of the mobile version, and if so, why not leave it out altogether?” If there is still a compelling argument for separate content, then you will probably gravitate towards a separate mobile site.
There are some great features available on mobile phones (GPS, taking photos, etc.). Why not take advantage of them?
Make Your Decision
When it comes down to choosing a mobile strategy, start at the beginning of the project, and make decisions based on conversations with the client and the needs of the end users. Choose the strategy that best meets their current situation and needs.
Side note: Yes, there are mobile apps. No, they will not replace the need for a mobile-optimized version of your site. For one explanation why, check out Jason Grigsby’s Cloud Four blog. Another great resource is Luke Wroblewski’s Mobile First book, available from A Book Apart.
A final note: Sometimes, your client will not have the budget for a full-fledged responsive or mobile strategy – or sometimes they simply want improve their current site right now. As Aaron Stanush of Four Kitchens has said, the best thing you can do for any website to make it mobile friendly is to make it fast. You mobile users will love you for it, and the rest of your users will also benefit.