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Responsive Web Design: the most significant trend in website design

3rd June 2013

3-minutes read

If you intend to commission a new website in the near future, your website designer will talk to you about “responsive” websites. This article explains what you need to know about responsive sites so you can make an informed decision when the time comes.

What is a "responsive” website?

A responsive website is one that adapts its appearance based on the screen it appears on. Put simply, a responsive website knows about the capabilities of the visitor’s device - whether it’s a desktop PC, tablet or smartphone - and the site changes its layout to make optimum use of the available screen space. If the visitor uses a smartphone (such as an iPhone), the website alters its layout to fit the small screen; if another visitor uses a desktop PC, the same website presents itself differently because there’s more screen space available.

Why is responsive website design such a big thing now?

In the last few years, the number of people accessing websites via a smartphone or a tablet (such as an iPad), has increased massively. Mobile usage is now at such a level that website owners cannot ignore the fact that many visitors view websites on small screens.

Mobile usage is highest among younger demographics but certainly not limited to young adults.

Many people use their phone / tablet in the evening when they have time to browse the Internet at their leisure.

A traditional website designed for a larger desktop screen, even though it may still work on a mobile screen, is not ideal for mobile users. Repeatedly "pinching” the screen to zoom into an area of content becomes tiresome and it’s difficult to read online content in such a way.

How do I know if a website is responsive?

You can use our website as a test.

Grab the right edge of your browser with your mouse and drag the browser window leftwards to make it smaller. You will see that the site’s layout changes as the available screen space reduces.

When you see a website’s layout change as the screen size changes, you know you are looking at a responsive website.

Do I need a responsive website?

If you already have a website, check your statistics. In particular, look for data around screen sizes and device types. If you see a significant number of visits from devices with a screen size smaller than 1,000-pixels, you know that people already view your site on mobile devices. Perhaps you should cater for these visitors by providing a responsive site?

If your website is highly functional rather than one that simply provides information, the case is even stronger. AutoTrader is a good example of a functional website that needs to accommodate the particular needs of mobile users. Imagine trying to specify the options for a vehicle search while continually "pinching in” and "pinching out” because the website does not adequately fit on your phone’s screen – it would get annoying very quickly!

Do responsive websites cost more?

Designing a website to be responsive is more of a challenge and involves more work for your website designer. The cost of building such a site will rise accordingly.

However, consider the possible alternatives:

  • Do nothing – you could let mobile users access your website and accept that it was designed for a desktop PC rather than a smaller screen.
  • Build a separate, mobile site – desktop users get to see the full, desktop site; mobile users are redirected to a separate mobile site.

Doing nothing is fine if mobile users comprise a small minority of visitors to your site or if your website is not critical to your business. If this is not the case, you need a responsive website or a separate mobile site, which is the approach taken by the BBC.

The full site is available at www.bbc.co.uk; the mobile site (which you get sent to automatically if you view the site on your phone) is at m.bbc.co.uk.

This is a perfectly reasonable approach but building, hosting and maintaining two separate websites is likely to cost more than having a single, responsive site. However, because the two sites are entirely unrelated, you do get the freedom to treat each one independently. With a responsive site, you only have one website, even though it has the intelligence to alter its appearance – and thus look different – based on the visitor’s device. Compared to the costs of running two separate websites, perhaps the extra investment in a responsive site is justified?

Jeremy Flight

Jeremy Flight

Technical Director

Jeremy Flight

About the author

This article was written in June 2013 by Jeremy Flight, Technical Director at Rubiqa.

He has worked in the web design industry since 1999 and has helped many private businesses and public sector organisations with complex website projects. As the technical lead at Rubiqa, he is the primary contributor to our software products and is involved with projects relating to website design, eCommerce, database systems and mobile apps.

Away from work, Jeremy is a qualified cricket coach and works with junior players at his local club. He is also interested in property investment, golf, photography, playing the piano and holidaying in France.

Connect with Jeremy Flight on LinkedIn

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