Is responsive web design the answer to digital publishing?
I work for content websites. Magazine and news sites to be more specific. Of course our titles are available on tables and smartphones as well and a topic that comes naturally is responsive web design.
It promises one product on all devices. But does it deliver?
Using responsible web design techniques promises only one template per content that adapts to all sensible screen sizes in order to be usable for the users. Navigation lists flip over just like columns and tables if the screen becomes narrower or wider.
The promise: no more dedicated development for platforms like tablets or smartphones or the web. Instead one solution serves all.
Just imagine if a title like the New York Times could focus on just one implementation and instantly serve users with desktops, netbooks, tablets, smartphones and everything in between at once. Imagine the resources saved both financially and time-wise.
But is responsible web design the holy grail?
It might be for some but definitely not in general!
There are so many things to consider.
First off there is the space issue. You will fit more content on a website than on a smartphone so you have to decide whether to hide content from smaller displays or to fetch later on bigger displays.
Hiding from smaller displays means that content is loaded but hidden via CSS. If extreem user experience for mobile phone users would suffer as they would use a lot of their bandwidth to fetch stuff they never get to see.
Fetching later for bigger displays means loading a minimum and query the rest via ajax. If extreem user experience for desktop users would suffer as the page will take longer to load and might even jump as content becomes available. Even worse effect: content that is loaded dynamically is invisible to search engines which are the major traffic source for content sites.
So the question has to be asked: is your content able to be work on smaller and bigger displays at the same time without a major tradeoff?
Another question is strategic. Do you really want to serve the same content on all devices? Or do you have to acknowledge different user scenarios for mobile, tablet and desktop users? Christophe Stoll from German agency precious did a cool presentation about different strategic approaches to different device categories.
The strategic value of a decision in favor of responsible web design is important as it is not a trend that you implement today and change tomorrow. It can and should be a foundation of your digital enterprises. If your projects are highly volatile and you can not ensure that the underlying ideas support your strategic decision you should not do it. Responsiveness only pays off if you use it, play with it and build on it.
Responsive web design is a cool new fashion but think twice if it suits you.