Mobile websites vs responsive design

by / Monday, 11 February 2013 / Published in Blog

The increase in the popularity of tablets and smartphones means that a growing proportion of website visitors are using these devices rather than traditional desktops or laptops.

However, most websites are built for display on desktops, so people viewing them on smaller devices have to zoom in and out to read the content. Even worse, some website designs have flaws in the navigation which make them difficult or impossible to use on tablets or smartphones. For example, many drop-down menus don’t work on tablets, and some navigation links are crammed so close together that it’s very difficult for a finger to touch the right link.

There are two main approaches for making websites mobile-friendly. One is to create a separate mobile website, often with a stripped-down version of the content, which mobile users are redirected to. These are called ‘mobile websites’. The other approach is to design the website to respond to the device, so that the width changes to fit desktop, tablet or smartphone. These are called ‘responsive websites’.

Website developers are still debating the merits of these approaches. The issue was brought into focus during the recent presidential election campaign in the United States. The two candidates took different approaches on their official websites. Romney used a mobile website while Obama took the responsive approach.

Romney’s smartphone and tablet website visitors only saw a fraction of the content, a problem common to ‘mobile’ websites. In contrast, Obama’s ‘responsive’ website made all of the content available on small devices. This illustrates the main drawback of the mobile website approach, which assumes that mobile users don’t want access to all of the content that desktop users have access to.

Responsive websites are more difficult to build and require stricter controls (for example, with image sizes), but offer huge advantages (such as offering all of the same content with no need to manage a separate website). Mobile websites can increase running costs by having to manage both websites, something responsive sites avoid. Another issue with mobile websites is that they are hosted on a separate sub-domain (for example, m.bbc.co.uk), which can cause a variety of problems with things like redirection and search engine optimisation.

For me, it’s the content issue that is critical. Whenever I come across a mobile site with limited content, I always end up clicking on the ‘full site’ link. The debate will continue, but the outcome of the presidential election could suggest the future of mobile website development.

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