Poorly implemented responsive web design can harm your business online
The marketing onslaught of do-it-yourself website building sites, template/theme sites coupled with the easy availability of web service providers who will gladly customize (add custom content) a responsive theme from Themeforest or elsewhere in one or two business days for a few bucks has resulted in just about anyone who needs a website having a website.
And almost 100% these websites are responsive because “mobile friendly” is a buzz word. Its standard equipment now just like car air-conditioning. Google has stated that its ranking algorithm factors in whether your website is mobile-friendly or not.
This is all great and especially if you are a business or professional with no internet presence – it’s a reasonable start as a website for most.
Responsive web design (RWD) is a term given to a web design approach that advocates that a website should respond to the user’s display, device, and orientation to give every user an acceptable experience browsing the website. A responsive website viewed on a tablet or a smartphone or a desktop computer will provide the user with a perfectly accessible website.
This is a good thing also.
Some designers/developers carry this thinking forward with a mobile-first approach using data from various sources such as Google that quantify that searches on mobile, outnumber desktop searches.
This is a fair conclusion especially because nobody walks around with a desktop computer unlike the ubiquitous and addictive smartphone. A smartphone is a very useful tool for many tasks and especially since even without a data plan you can get free Wi-Fi at Dunkin Donuts and McDonalds and at just about every chain restaurant or coffee shop. In many countries people have internet connectivity only via a mobile device.
So, what exactly is the problem with responsively designed websites?
The one-line answer is: Sloppiness and lack of attention to the user experience and the target customer.
Responsive design in its simplest form ensures that all content on a website is equally accessible on all devices. On many websites, we see full width images, text and widgets laid out in rows with each row separated out into one or more columns.
Like a warehouse full of boxes, as the width of the viewer’s screen shrinks or expands, the “boxes” of information re-stack themselves into the available width.
Using CSS media-queries this stacking can be controlled for various screen widths, and fonts and other stylized elements on the web-page can be adjusted also.
On smartphones, the mobile first approach works out usually well. And a user can access most of the information on a website adequately.
But due to laziness/sloppiness – the designer/developer is often seen not to have spent the time ensuring that the desktop experience is stellar. With purchased themes, except for a few stylistic customizations, there is usually no effort made by way of enhancing the user experience because doing so will break down future updates for the theme.
The blame cannot be put squarely on the designer/developer in all situations. If the total budget is paltry then expecting anything more is like comparing $49 budget airline seats to business class seats. My argument only applies to websites of well-funded initiatives.
You often see an obviously responsive website on a desktop and the website stretches the entire width of the LCD horizon. Huge images abound, buttons suitable for The Hulk are everywhere and you must scroll vertically several times to figure out what exactly is being offered on the site.
If you look at (many not all) cars from the eighties, many are terribly ugly and you wonder what were people and car makers thinking? Perhaps they looked cool at that time. But I think this is the same reason due to which clients seem to approve these kinds of websites. Maybe by seeing the same awful maximum width responsive websites all over – they seem to think that is the gold standard.
Leaving anecdotal observations aside, an entry level 23-inch monitor does not cost much more than $100 (US). A premium one may cost $200. 21-inch monitors are $60 all day at just about any store or online retailer.
The point here being that everyone with even the minimum of funds to quality them as a customer who has a desktop computer has at least a 21-inch monitor.
If you are looking at ice-cream cones, doggy treats, deciding on a restaurant, a photographer’s work, a full screen experience is fine. Because the focus is on the photos. The text and information will be quite brief. There usually will be no complicated forms or search functions.
But let us consider the following (more serious) scenarios:
- Researching a surgical process on a hospital website
- Researching a 401k manager’s plans
- Reading the terms for a mortgage lender
- Researching a merchant cash advance vendor’s offering
- Researching the options on a new automobile
- Signing up for a retirement community
- Searching for suitable real estate
- Finding and then signing up for a vacation
- Signing up a child to a new school
- Prospective participants reading up on a clinical trial
In these scenarios, the user will most likely not be accessing information to make a decision on their mobile device simply because accessing and consuming substantial amounts of information on a mobile device is very hard with the limited screen real estate. For a big-ticket item or signing up for an important service that could have long term ramifications, the average (sensible) user will use their desktop to spend some serious research time, perhaps bookmarking several webpages and then finally signing up. This customer needs to see information that is visually easy to read and digest, neatly organized and not overwhelming to mentally consume.
Out of data gathered from several A/B testing initiatives on squeeze pages and micro-sites for various clients it became evident that for serious offerings and especially for big-ticket items and long-term contracts, desktop users outnumbered mobile users by up to a 30:1 margin for completed goals. A completed goal can be defined as the point where a visitor turns into a prospect/lead/customer by performing some action.
Data suggested that visitors on a mobile device often saved the links to such websites and returned later to view the information on a desktop.
I go as far as to tell clients in certain industries that if their target customer is a senior level executive or high net worth individuals – first ensure that the desktop user experience is optimal. The mobile first approach here can harm your business online because the user experience for your target market on the most critical platform – the desktop, can easily be ignored with a sloppy designer/developer.
Customers don’t hire designers for designing a nice looking website alone – even though they may think that it may be the primary/sole reason. They hire designers to ensure that all customer user experiences and especially for the target demographic is stellar. Therefore, it’s important to focus most on the user experience that will likely get the customer the most return on investment. And then move on to addressing the user experience for other types of users.
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