SEMA News—January 2014
By Joe Dysart
Not Always a Genius Move
While often ballyhooed as a panacea for the wide variety computing screen sizes company websites must accommodate, one-size-fits-all websites are actually a trade-off that often end up being more trouble than they’re worth.
The problem: these “responsive websites,” as they’re known—or sites that auto-sense a device’s screen size, and then respond by reconfiguring text and graphics to fit that screen size—often render on desktop PCs with ridiculously large text and other over-blown features that are tedious to wade through.
The impetus behind the approach makes sense. Web designers using responsive design take great pains to ensure that anything that appears on traditional-size website will look good on the smallest of screens—even a smartphone.
Says Rupinder Dhariwal, co-founder, Creative Cranes, a web design firm: “We are heavily pushing responsive websites to our new clients and updating a lot of existing sites to include this functionality.”
Adds Steven Fabre, a designer with Digital Garden, another web design firm: “I truly believe responsive web design is the only way to go to build future-friendly websites that will always work on any device.”
Plus, by sticking with one website for all the various screen sizes, businesses can generally save on web design costs—as compared to attempting to maintain one site for desktops and laptops, a second for tablets and a third for smartphones.
“Updates are also easier to apply to versions for all screen resolutions, since there is no need to work on multiple website versions,” says Michael Dobkowski, president, Glacial Multimedia, a web design firm.
And a single website generally translates into higher rankings on the search engines, given that all the traffic to your business goes to one location on the web. Split up your presence with three websites—traditional, tablet and mobile—and search engines such as Google will split the traffic ratings to your presence on the web three ways.
Also, some big guns in the tech industry—including Google—are “all in” when it comes to responsive web design. “Many website marketing firms had provided a minimalist mobile website in addition to a site designed to be viewed on a desktop,” prior to the rise of responsive design, says Dan Goldstein, president, Page 1 Solutions, a web design firm. “While Google had originally stated that this was a good option, more recently, Google has made clear that responsive is better.”
Adds Cyndi Miller, CEO, Miller Public Relations, which offers web design as part of its services: “Responsive web development is our current standard of practice for our clients. It’s not an upcharge or an add-on. It’s part of every web design package we offer. That’s how vital we believe it to be.”
But generally speaking, the problem dealing with the “tyranny of the tiny”—or ensuring that every website design looks good on the smallest of smartphones—is that responsive sites often render as ridiculous monstrosities on desktops and laptops, and are often difficult to use on bigger screens.
“I have been to many websites by big companies and they have not adopted for responsive design,” says Sean B. Jamshidi, owner, DesignFacet, who has been designing websites for decades and has little love for responsive web design. “There must be a reason why.”
In addition to poster-sized headlines, you’ll often find that responsive websites make generous use of wide swaths of blank space—space that you must scroll through with repeated spins on your mouse when using a desktop PC—but often looks just fine on a smartphone.
Plus, responsive websites that need to feature a great deal of text—including product descriptions, company backgrounders, customer testimonials and the like, also often look more like train wrecks than anything else on a desktop.
One glaring example: on a desktop PC, the text on a responsive web often runs the full length of a 23-in. screen, so it will shrink down nice-and-tidy when viewed on a smartphone screen. For the mobile user, that’s convenient, since the responsive website reconfigures text margins to fit a palm sized screen. But for the desktop user, trying to read a sentence 23 in. long is not nearly as much fun—unless you’re a giraffe.
Says Russel Uresti, a web developer with Schoology, a learning management system, who is an avid advocate of responsive design: “Often, so much emphasis is made about mobile devices and making the site look good on a phone or tablet that designers will overlook extremely large monitors and fail to design for them. Which is, again, more of a failure of implementation than with the methodology.”
Incredibly, the scores of designers championing responsive web design are either unaware of the unacceptable usability they’re creating for desktop and laptop users—or they’re silently willing to sacrifice desktop and laptop usability all in the name of the iPhone and related trendables.
“It kinda becomes a fanatical point of view that they keep about their work,” says Design Facet’s Jamshidi. “They design more for themselves than for the client.
When challenged by desktop and laptop users regarding usability, champions of responsive web design often insist that with the frenzied proliferation of smartphones and tablets, mobile is the de facto standard, and that the days of desktops and laptops are numbered. Any rational designer, they insist, most proceed with a “mobile first” strategy.
Unfortunately, the statistics tell a starkly different story. In an April 2012 study conducted by Comscore, which has been chronicling the web’s evolution for many years, 91.8% of all devices connected to the web were PCs. Only 5.2% of that traffic was from smartphones surfing the web. As for tablets: a paltry 2.5% of that category of device was actually accessing the web during the study period.
Granted, there have been millions of smartphones and tablets shipped since April 2012. But even so, Deloitte, the market research firm, predicts that for 2013, more than 80% of all web surfing will still be done on desktop and laptop PCs, according to Jolyon Barker, managing director of global technology, media and telecommunications at Deloitte.
Put another way: Sure, there are plenty of people on smartphones tagging the net for a minute or so while waiting in line for their latte at Starbucks. But any serious and substantial use of the web will continue to be overwhelmingly done on desktops and laptops.
Bottom line: The next time a web designer shows up at your office promising to build you a state-of-the-art, responsive website that will deliver a consistent and optimized user experience across the wide variety of devices and platforms that web surfers use, make sure you read the fine print.
Fortunately, if you’re reading it on a responsive website, it’ll be the size of a wooly mammoth.