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Responsive web design: the war has not yet been won

Responsive Web Design. All the cool kids are doing it. We extolled the virtues of Ethan’s holy trinity of fluid layouts, flexible images, and media queries, and slowly but surely everyone dropped fixed-width designs for websites that flex and bend to every scenario, and adapt to every device.

Or did they?

Well, no. As widely adopted as the RWD process is, there are still numerous designers, developers, freelancers, and agencies who continue to opt for the safety of fixed widths, or adopt the process in a semi-complete sort of way — like making several fixed designs that adapt to specific device sizes, or change only when the screen is at a mobile-like resolution.

It’s easy to dismiss this crowd as old-school agencies, or print-focused creatives who don’t ‘get’ the web, and they certainly do account for a large amount of this RWD-wary crowd. But I’ve noticed a whole bunch of very web-savvy people (whose work I respect, and many of whom I call friends) who seem not only adverse to the idea of adopting the RWD process, but actually quite vocal in their opposition.

So today I’d like to address these arguments and — hopefully — dispel some of the myths that are preventing a huge number of talented people from embracing the inherently fluid nature of the web.

RWD is not mobile design

With no disrespect intended to the talented folks behind GoCardless, my heart sank a little when I read their blog post about why they’ve decided to ditch responsive web design. Their argument hangs on the premise that only 2% of their audience were visiting the site on a mobile device, and thus it wasn’t worth the extra time and effort to make the site responsive (more on that in a second). Although the article is well-written and eloquently substantiates their rationale, I can’t help but feel that they’ve misinterpreted the meaning of RWD: namely, that it is not simply mobile design. Nor is it tablet design, nor game console browser design, nor screen-on-your-futuristic-fridge design. RWD, in my opinion, should be device agnostic.

Allow me to elaborate. From the very first responsive site I created, I made the decision to introduce media queries only when it felt natural to re-adjust the content, rather than when the screen width reached a device-specific dimensions, like ‘iPhone landscape’ or ‘iPad portrait’. I’ve always encouraged others to follow the same process, if for no other reason than it stops us thinking about specific devices, and in turn makes our sites more future-proof. A hardware manufacturer might introduce a brand new product tomorrow that changes the world and uses completely different dimensions. If you adjust your design when it looks right, you won’t have to worry about retro-fitting your media queries for new devices.

RWD does not have to take more time, or cost more money

Perhaps the biggest obstacle preventing people from getting behind the concept of RWD is that it takes more time to build responsive sites, and more time equals more money. Well, I won’t lie to you: it does.

To begin with, anyway.

Once you overcome that initial struggle of adapting to a new process, designing and building responsive sites needn’t take any longer, or cost any more money. The real obstacle is designers and developers being set in their ways. I know this because I was one of those people, and to those of you who’ve now fully embraced RWD, you may well be nodding in agreement: we all struggled with it to begin with, just like we did when we moved from table-based layout to CSS.

For those of you who are unconvinced, I imagine you’re keen to point out that different views mean different designs, and that will always mean longer design periods and higher costs, right? And what about complex sites? It’s all very well when you’re designing simple one-page blogs, I hear you cry.

Well, again I think it’s all about changing the way you work. Changing the way you think about web design, really. For a start, get out of Photoshop. Don’t design a ‘desktop’ view as a flat file and a ‘mobile’ view as a flat file, or something between, or anything for that matter. Now has never been a better time to embrace designing-in-the-browser. Sure, that’s a challenge, and if you’re not particularly code-savvy, there’s certainly an overhead there while you acquire those extra skills. But if you’re a web designer, you should be able to write code.

I say this not to create some sort of elite, or to chastise those who don’t yet have that knowledge, but because knowing your way around markup and CSS — and therefore being able to quickly try out what works and what doesn’t work in the browser — is the biggest step you could ever take in making RWD part of your process instead of an add-on.

Add-ons take extra time and cost your clients more money. Integrated processes don’t.

(As an aside, if you’re like me and like to keep things simple, you might find my 1000px responsive grid helps avoid some of the tough maths often associated with RWD.)

RWD is worth it

If you’ve read everything I’ve written so far, I’ve hopefully got across two key points:

  • RWD is about making your site adaptable to any scenario, without worrying about specific devices and their proprietary dimensions.
  • RWD doesn’t need to take more time and therefore doesn’t need to cost your clients more money. At least not after you’ve rethought your approach to web design, anyway.

However, there may still be some of you out there who are still asking the simple question, ‘but is it worth it?’ And it’s actually a very valid question, especially in those circumstances — such as when you or your company are adapting to a RWD workflow — when it can equate to more time and greater costs.

The answer, as always, is: ‘it depends.’

Some desktop-optimised designs work fine just as they are on tablets, which was one of GoCardless’ main points, and probably the main reason they saw RWD as simply designing for mobile. But aside from just telling you that responsive sites are far more likely to be future-proof as the plethora of computing devices grows, it’s worth looking at some actual statistics.

Electric Pulp recently evaluated the affect that responsive-ising a client’s e-commerce site had on conversions, transactions, and revenue. The results were overwhelmingly positive, even when taking in the overall (desktop) growth of the product, as detailed in a follow-up post.

At the end of last year, Time magazine found that moving to a responsive design worked wonders for them. Craig Ettinger, general manager for Time.com, has detailed the positive increases in interviews for magazine.org and adweek.com.

In conclusion

I could go on about why I think Responsive Web Design is a great idea for your websites, clients, colleagues, and of course users, but the thought I’ll leave you with is this:

Create a new HTML document, add some content, don’t add any CSS, and view that document in a browser. What do you see?

The web has always been fluid; we’ve just wasted a good number of years forcing fixed pixels onto an inherently responsive framework. The time to stop is now.

This post came out of the presentation I gave at Responsive Day Out in Brighton, UK, on 1st March 2013.