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Responsive Web Design Is Changing the World: IWNY 2014

Matthew T. Grant

Responsive Web Design Is Changing the World: IWNY 2014 image
Responsive Web Design Is Changing the World: IWNY 2014

As a follow up to our class on optimizing the creative workflow, Aquent Gymnasium also offered a class on responsive web design last week at Internet Week New York 2014. People packed the room to hear Jeremy Osborn, Aquent Gymnasium's Academic Director, make a strong case for why companies should go responsive and to hear his practical tips on how to go about it.

Responsive web design (RWD), an approach first mapped out by Ethan Marcotte in 2010, emerged in response to one simple fact: the web experience no longer happens exclusively or even primarily on the desktop. As vivid illustration of this situation, Jeremy reminded the audience that over 50% of Americans have a smartphone (a device on which consumers spend an average of 3.3 hours a day) and that 87% of the world has mobile access (with vast swathes of the world being "mobile only").

Given the inexorable rise of mobile adoption and the steady proliferation of web-enabled device sizes (with a dizzying array of dimensions), not to mention the fact that people regularly move between screens throughout their day, one would think that the move to RWD would be a no-brainer.

Instead, as Jeremy pointed out, only about 10% of all sites (including, oddly enough, 10% of both the top 1,000 and the top 10,000 most visited sites on the web) are responsive. Since that could lead one to believe that RWD is a nice-to-have rather than a need-to-have, Jeremy laid out four reasons why the unresponsive 90% might want to reconsider (or at least accelerate their responsive efforts).

The Benefits of Responsive Web Design

First, Jeremy explained, RWD is about reach. If your site doesn't work on mobile devices, be they phones or tablets, you will be reaching fewer and fewer customers over time; indeed, you are already not reaching them. Furthermore, if you have chosen to go down the path of maintaining two separate sites (a desktop version and a mobile version) then you are not only creating more work for your web team, you are also opening the door to frustration and confusion on the part of your users!

Next, Jeremy said, Google likes RWD. Indeed, Google has gone so far as to explicitly recommend the responsive approach. Why? Mobile sites are notoriously hard to index. For example, URLs on the desktop often send you somewhere unexpected if you try to access them via a mobile device. Likewise, when you share a URL from your device and someone views it on the desktop, it can look weird or just plain wrong.

The third benefit of RWD Jeremy cited was also Google's second reason for preferring it: user experience. Google is obsessed with sending searchers where they want to be, from a content standpoint as well as from an experience standpoint. Since RWD creates a smoother user experience across devices, it also helps Google serve its customers. Moreover, it will help companies avoid frustrating their customers as they try to complete tasks across devices.

Finally, Jeremy offered up a benefit that should get the attention of business leaders: RWD can improve the bottom line. To reinforce this point, Jeremy pointed both to the fact that on "Black Friday" in 2013, retailers saw mobile transactions increase 176% over 2012, and that companies (he cited two examples) are actually reporting measurable increases in sales after responsive site redesigns.

Holistic Thinking and the Future of Responsive

RWD is not, Jeremy was careful to caution, a panacea. For it to be effective, RWD requires a holistic approach to managing a company's web presence. This involves, first of all, a willingness to prioritize UX in the development of your site by focusing on how, when, and why users access your content. Second of all, you have to make sure your web strategy and your content strategy are thoroughly integrated. Customers use different devices for different tasks, does your site serve up content appropriately? It better!

Finally, your site needs to have a firm, technical foundation. "Make site performance a top priority," Jeremy urged the class. Why? Because there is a direct and measurable relationship revenue and site performance. Studies have shown that nearly half of web users expect a page to load within two seconds and will abandon a page if it takes longer than three. At the same time, the average Fortune 500 page takes 9.3 seconds!

If anyone failed to see the implications of this gaping chasm between user expectation and the performance of commercial sites, Jeremy asked the class to consider the following questions: How much money would you earn per month if your traffic increased 1%? What would you earn if your conversion rate went up 1%? How many customers can your afford to lose before your brand takes a hit due to poor site performance? Answer those questions and the financial benefit of RWD should become crystal clear quite quickly.

Next Steps

Jeremy readily acknowledged that, although the benefits of RWD are substantial, building a responsive site, even just a responsive version of an already existing commercial site, takes time and resources. Not only that, the behaviors of web users are a moving target and there can be a lot of questions about the best way to go responsive for any given company.

For this reason, Jeremy insisted, "You don't have to do it all at once." Retrofitting a site—making it responsive piece by piece, for example—is an absolutely reasonable option, he said, particularly if you start with the most popular pages. 

Still, even in this process Jeremy recommended adopting a "mobile first" mindset. That is, rather than looking at your existing site and subtracting content as you go to smaller and smaller versions, turn it around. Think about the critical content and functionality that you need to have in the mobile version, and then add more as screens get bigger. 

When you put users first, you realize that it's not the purveyors of RWD who are asking companies to rethink their approach to the multi-device world; it's customer behavior. RWD merely provides a methodology and framework for taking that behavior into account. 

And since this trend towards RWD is user-driven, Jeremy said, companies shouldn't be looking at the business cost of going responsive; they should focus on the business cost of not doing it.

View Jeremy's slides.

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