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Responsive Web Design Is Not A Silver Bullet

Silve bullet cutting through mobile devices

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I love responsive web design. It’s clever, it’s elegant and it’s incredibly apt for a world that’s turning ever more to mobile and tablet browsing. Even Google has given it their official recommendation. But as brilliant as RWD is, it’s by no means easy. It’s not a quick fix to make sites mobile friendly nor is it a simple add-on you can slap on to a budget or proposal at the end. It takes a lot of planning, a lot of thought and, dare I say it, a lot of skill to pull off properly. Sometimes it’s not even the right solution.

We started implementing responsive design well over a year go and since then we’ve spent a huge amount of time thinking about it, discussing it, working with it and arguing like hell over it. We’ve altered existing sites to make them responsive (painful), we’ve created sites that are only partially responsive (experimental), we’ve suggested it to clients after designs have been agreed on (madness) and, of course, we’ve built entire sites responsively from the ground up (sensible). Whilst by no means definitive experts on the subject, we’ve certainly embraced RWD as a core principle to our business.

And it’s not been easy.

Now maybe this isn’t something I should be admitting but I don’t think it will come as a surprise to most people that working with new concepts and new technology has its share of challenges and difficulties. Just as I’m sure the first person to invent the hammer accidentally bashed themselves in the face with it before applying it successfully to nails in wood, changing the way we approach the design and build of web sites, altering our very mindset from fixed desktop constraints to variable and endless viewing mediums, does not leave one without a few bruises.

Of course, there’s no doubt that responsive solutions are becoming easier to implement every day. As it gains popularity and traction, more testing tools, flexible grids, and clever design theories become available to help us out. Yet, regardless of the great stuff that already exists or is in the pipeline, developing a responsive site is currently still something that requires a good degree of time and effort to implement – it’s not a quick fix, it’s not a simple addition, it’s a core principle that really needs to be worked into a web site from the ground up (unless you want to experience a whole world of pain, that is).

The design and development challenges of going down the RWD path are obvious or, at least, more well documented. Finding and utilising the right grid for the job, determining how to deal with break points, deciding whether to follow progressive enhancement or graceful degradation, finding the tools to test the myriad of mobile devices out there, how to deal with that one JavaScript problem that only appears on Android 4.0… these are all facets of following the responsive path that will rear their ugly heads, look you straight in the eye and demand your unbudgeted attention.

The less obvious, and often more longterm, impact of RWD however is the business side. Is your client fully aware that the responsive approach will lock them into that solution forever more? That it will potentially increase workload when expanding the site? That it will restrict what can be accomplished on the different renderings of pages? That the design needs to be flexible because stuff is probably going to change as you build it that you can’t predict? There’s a lot to think about.

Likewise, regardless of the many benefits a responsive approach can bring, sometimes it’s just flat out not the right solution for the job and, instead, a completely separate mobile site would be better. Sometimes business don’t want to serve the same content to every medium; sometimes the user interface is so complex that trying to create a mobile experience by only altering the CSS isn’t viable; sometimes you just plain don’t want to serve the entire site to mobile users or want the burden of maintaining a responsive implementation. These are all issues we’ve dealt with and reasons why one large project we’ve been working on recently has a separate mobile site rather than a responsive one.

So what’s my point?

Well, as wonderful as responsive design is, it’s not a silver bullet to implementing transmedia sites quickly and easily without thought. Just like any worthwhile solution, RWD requires time and attention with clear planning and discussion up front and the bigger the site, the bigger the impact it will have. I’m not advocating separate mobile sites over responsive ones either (far from it), merely that whatever approach you undertake should more than a fleeting consideration or a simple whim.

I suppose if I had melodramatic tendencies I would end this post with an ominous remark like “underestimate responsive web design at your peril”. But seeing as I’m not an extra in Pirates of the Caribbean, I won’t bother.

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Author: Gordon McLachlan

Gordon is uncomfortably good looking.

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  1. [...] design is not a silver bullet. I’ve said that before. Right here, in fact. It’s not always the best solution for the job at hand and sometimes creating a separate [...]

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