Do we need mobile-specific websites in a responsive world?

A lot is being written about ‘responsive web design’ recently… it has become the buzzword for describing an approach to building websites.

To summarise, my understanding of what it actually entails is: the design of a website in a manner that allows it to be scaled to fit the screensize of the device being used to access it. A device being anything from an iphone or blackberry or ipad, through netbooks and laptop computers, to your television (using a games console).

I was prompted to pick up my pen after reading Jeremy Keith’s recent article on responsive web design. It is a succinct overview of the issues designing in this way addresses, the current state of play and how it fits into the evolution of the design of websites. I’d definitely recommend giving it a read.

In the article Jeremy argues against serving device-specific sites (iPhone, Android, Palm, Kindle, iPad, etc), suggesting that it is an unsustainable model and that a responsive site is a better alternative. For the most part I agree with the sentiment. And it got me thinking, are mobile-specific sites equally redundant in the face of responsive web design?

The case for mobile-specific websites

Firstly we need to consider the from where and the how do users access the finished website, and what their needs are in those circumstances. Interrogating these needs and circumstance may reveal a viable condition under which a mobile-specific website is beneficial to both your business and customers. These tend to have simplified functionality and are aimed at enabling a user to quickly achieve a goal or set of goals, i.e. checking in for a flight, doing the grocery shopping or checking the balance of a bank account.

My app does that…

We are indeed straying into app territory here, however it is a method that allows you to offer a similar online service while remaining device independent. Your potential audience reach has ballooned. Time and money has been saved by not creating device specific sites.

It could be argued that mobile-specific sites are simply one facet of responsive web design. Albeit with subtraction of much of the content found on your main site. I would certainly encourage you to approach these sites in the same responsive fashion: the mobile device doesn’t have to be a mobile phone, and thought should be put into how the site scales up. Think Suit on a short taxi-ride to the airport for a business trip, they have a laptop and mobile broadband, and need to quickly and effortlessly check-in for a flight. Why shouldn’t they be able to use the mobile-specific site?

Temporary redundancy of information

Should websites just deliver this simplified user-experience anyway? Where possible, then yes. Simplify what you can and reduce clutter across the board, based on the user’s needs. Sometimes this won’t be enough to satisfy what are often conflicting demands, and so it may be necessary to create an alternative means of interaction – these mobile-specific sites – that is further simplified.

Taking the bank account example above: it would be enough for me to access my balance, a few recent transactions and transfer some money while on-the-go. I don’t also need to be able to access a full transaction history on the account, or apply for a loan or credit card. I only want that level of complexity when I have the time available to me to properly engage with it – these are functions that I would expect to access from home through the main site. This redundancy of information is dictated by circumstance, it is temporary state.

When to deliver the mobile web

The phrase ‘mobile web’ is often used to refer to websites delivered to mobile phones. It is why we term them mobile-specific sites. This isn’t entirely accurate. I would argue that mobile web is the web as it is consumed on-the-go, most commonly through a mobile phone. It is more mobile browsing. These mobile sites need to be optimised to reflect the limited resources at our disposal – time, bandwidth and (more often than not) screen size. They should deliver a tailored, device independent experience on demand. Get me the address of that second hand record shop and picture of the store-front so I recognise it when I come to it, or the time of the next train home… n-n-n-now!

The not so mobile, mobile web

Mobile phones aren’t just for mobile browsing. Frequently I use mine to check my email, Twitter and Facebook accounts from the sofa. I also use it as a reference guide when watching TV or reading a book – it augments the experience. I want access to the information now and don’t want the burden of booting up the laptop, but have the time and bandwidth to consume it at a leisurely pace. I’m not alone in this, having frequently observed friends and family doing the same.

In these situations it can be frustrating to be limited to the mobile-specific site – we really do want all the functionality of the full site. A responsively designed website can deliver this in a format suited to whatever device we choose to use.

It is all responsive web design

I hope that this short ramble illustrates that there is a continued need for sites geared towards mobile browsing, where they address a specific user need. Writing this piece has reinforced for me just how many and varied our viewing habits of the web are, and how pervasive the need for a responsive approach is. Responsive web design enables sites to be produced that address this by adapting to the multitude of devices used to access them. And that should include those sites tailored to meet the demands of mobile browsing. It is all responsive web design.

I have come to realise that our approach to the mobile web is misguided: we frequently allow the ‘mobile’ nature of the technology to dictate the user-experience. I would suggest the best approach is to have goal-specific or on-the-go sites (apologies for the dreadful terminology – we can work on it…) that facilitate mobile browsing, leaving the user with the ability to easily switch between the two to meet their present situation, regardless of device.

A final word on responsive web design: if you are looking to give it a go, start with Ethan Marcotte’s fantastic A List Apart article on the subject.