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Responsive Design Does Many Things, Poorly

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Responsive design was, undeniably, the dominant trend of 2013. And this isn’t really surprising: As mobile and tablet browsing increases in popularity, it is important for websites to function—at the very least—on these devices. But this one-size-fits-all approach to multi-device design has a fundamental problem, one that poses a serious threat to conversion-oriented websites across industries.

In almost all cases, responsive “design” becomes an engineering solution to a design problem. Don’t get me wrong: When properly implemented, it is a fantastic engineering solution. Responsive design makes it relatively easy to solve a complex device rendering issue that only becomes more complex with each new mobile product arriving on the market. But in most cases, rendering isn’t the real problem—or at least not the most important problem.

The most significant problem created by multi-device browsing is that suddenly a website must address a dramatically more diverse set of user needs. When a user sits down at her laptop and navigates to a website, she has a specific mindset, specific needs. When a she navigates to a page on her phone while commuting to work on a train in the morning, she likely has a completely different set of expectations. Sure, if a page can’t render, it can’t be used. But if a page doesn’t address the specific mindset and needs of a user in that moment it isn’t usable.

For all its added complexity, responsive design often leads to lazy design. In typical examples, the best-case scenario is that the site is optimized for users of one resolution, one device type. Often, this is not even the case—in an effort to meet some of the needs of users across all platforms, none of the possible experiences are optimal.

At Brooks Bell, we have witnessed this first hand through mobile testing with clients. When mobile designs are optimized for those users—using a combination of mobile-first user interface design, relevant messaging, and specific imagery—conversions increase dramatically.

As an engineering solution, responsive architectures can be very successful—and they open up a wide range of opportunities that can be tested and optimized. But it is critically important that the process does not end there. Once you have unlocked the ability to create unique experiences, it is time to test and iterate new designs for each.

By adopting this dedication to multi-device testing, we may finally be able to realize the promise of responsive design: Websites that respond not only to the tool we happen to be using, but to the needs, attitudes, and desires we may have as well.

Interested in design focused on conversion? Contact Matt Haverkamp to find out more.

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