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Responsive Design: Not One-Size-Fits-All Fix

Tech trends come and go with the click of a mouse. One day, Flash is revolutionizing the Web, and the next, it’s being vilified by HTML5 evangelists. Dealing with the constantly revolving door of the latest technology can be a tricky ordeal — especially when it comes to wide-scale enterprise adoption.

Today, the latest tech buzzword making its paces is Responsive Web Design. Responsive Web Design (RWD) is a software development practice that builds websites in a manner that allows them to aesthetically scale to whichever device a visitor is viewing it on, and it has grown extremely popular with the proliferation of mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets. 

In the news industry, there are quite a few notable publishing organizations that have made the shift. One of the largest early adopters was The Boston Globe two years ago. The change has been almost universally lauded by critics as a thoughtful redesign; and later in the fall of 2013, The New York Times will move to RWD as well.

The stats back up the move towards mobile optimization: 25% of all Web browsing is done via smartphones and tablets, and it’s a number that’s only growing. It’s evident that in a multidevice world, traditional news experiences cannot keep up with the expectations and needs of users. But before assuming that all websites must go responsive or bust, publishers must take time to weigh the business implications and potential side-effects of such a move.

In the publishing industry — from magazines and newpapers to TV and radio, content has always reigned supreme. Ultimately, effective content is the single thing on which each and every publisher hangs his or her hat. This may come in the form of storytelling, engaging visuals, or clever ways to arouse the audience’s senses — most all of which is considered good content "design."

From a design perspective, RWD throws an interesting wrench into matters. On one hand, it promotes usability and accessibility — after all, in a world with over a billion smart devices, websites that can actively engage users on the mobile front will increase their viewership. However, RWD has another unintended design side-effect. It can negatively promote a sense of monotony and plainness.

Without getting too technical, a central tenet of RWD is grid layouts. Those are ultimately what allows a site with multiple components, widgets, calls-to-action and elements on a laptop to line up into a uniform column on the smartphone. However, this focus on creating grids that work on smartphones eventually leads to designing to the lowest common denominator.

Innovative Web-based pieces, such as last year's “Snow Fall” in The New York Times or this technology piece from The Verge use the power of the modern Web to engage their audiences in a way that RWD just doesn’t accommodate. And these pieces do this by focusing more on the content and less on trying to consistently rescale the article for all devices.

While this is more an issue with execution versus the limitations of RWD, most sites developed today will have a high degree of focus on using lots of negative space, having simple text arrangements and using basic blocks of information, thus dramatically reducing the ability to innovate and challenge audiences with though-provoking content layouts.

Strictly speaking, RWD can provide great convenience in the editorial process. One infrastructure can manage to reach laptop and mobile users alike, to create content once and publish everywhere. Based on the number of templates, sites built responsively can fit even the most non-standardized screen sizes, but the allure of this often comes with the compromise of providing a first-class mobile experience.

The alternative to responsive design for mobile devices is readily apparent: Mobile apps. Android, iOS, Windows and Blackberry all have tools to build rich content-oriented experiences. And if the true purpose of designing responsively is to reach more eyeballs, then a mobile app, in many cases, provides a stronger business value proposition for publishers and audiences alike.

Developing a mobile app means that it’s harder to code a single solution for multiple devices, but examine the trade-offs: mobile apps are integrated directly into the hardware and that means a variety of ways to create more engaging experiences.

For one, as new content becomes available, mobile apps can push alerts and notifications to users. Mobile apps don’t have to contend with other open Web pages in a browser, creating a more immersive experience. Mobile apps also allow for more user-friendly tools like storing content offline, and can provide a more seamless content-sharing experience through social channels, email clients and messaging tools.

The ultimate testament to the mobile app as the best-in-class experience is the fact that major publishers transitioning to RWD still don’t view it as a replacement to their app strategies. It’s the same reason that the Globe and the Times still create native apps, because ultimately the content consumption experience is more enriching and engaging than with a scaled down website.

RWD opens up a lot of exciting opportunities for the publishing industry — and is a strong step forward for the Web. However, from a business perspective, developing responsively is still far from being a forgone conclusion for many publishers. Remember, there too was once a time when Flash was hailed as the end-all be-all for interactive content distribution, yet times have changed.

Don’t misconstrue the caution in these arguments: my firm actively develops responsive websites on a regular basis and I believe it truly holds fantastic potential. However, we only ever develop sites with RWD in mind when we feel it ultimately provides the most long term business value for the client.

Devanshi Garg is chief operating officer of Icreon, a software, Web and mobile app design and development firm that also develops responsive sites.

This is part one of a two-part CrowdCheck on the benefits and challenges of responsive design. Read part two here.

*Originally featured on NetNewsCheck...