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Responsive Web Design: Today’s Best Route to Mobile Optimization

Steve Schmieder | Nov. 21, 2014

Three Keys to Ensure You Get RWD Right

This article is part two in a special three-part series on why you must build your mobile marketing platform now.

Online retailing has hit the “mobile tipping point” Internet Retailer reported in September. The magazine cited technology and digital measurement experts who said more than 50% of recent online retail activity had been conducted on mobile devices, the first time smartphones and tablets accounted for more than half of online retail activity.1 

In its 2015 Mobile 500 Guide, the magazine predicts sales by the world’s 500 leading retailers in mobile commerce should reach $84 billion in 2014, up 80% from $47 billion in 2013!2 Meanwhile, business use of mobile also continues to expand. Surveys of business decision makers reveal 63% now rely on mobile-optimized websites or apps as part of their jobs, and 35% use them at least weekly.3

Users of all kinds have become increasingly intolerant of subpar website performance on their mobile devices:

  • 60% of mobile users are willing to wait only three seconds for a website to load before leaving.
  • 46% say they are unlikely to return to a website they had trouble accessing from their phone.4
  • 61% said they would visit a competitor instead of a poorly performing site.5

But, optimizing mobile experiences isn’t easy, given the diverse requirements of the vast assortment of mobile devices now in use and the nonstop introduction of new devices and browser versions. One company recently found 18,796 different Android devices had been used to access its mobile app in 2014, a 58% increase over the 11,868 devices reported in 2013!6
To further complicate things, while worldwide sales of traditional computers continue to decline,7 consumers still spend more than 27 hours per month connecting to the Internet on laptops and desktops, compared to about 34 hours per month using browsers or apps on a smartphone.8 Even though 34% of cellphone users say their phone is the primary way they go online,9 many consumers and business users move back and forth between devices.

RWD Creates One Site for All Devices

With so many mobile and traditional devices to consider, the single greatest challenge facing digital marketers is creating an optimized and seamless online experience for every user on any device. Responsive Web design (RWD) is the effective, practical and sustainable answer for most marketers.

RWD is a design and development technique that allows a single website to respond to the screen size and capabilities of a user’s device to deliver a consistent experience across screens—ranging from the smallest smartphone to the largest desktop display and including myriad tablet, laptop and other screen sizes in between. Using media queries in cascading style sheets (CSS) to respond to each device, RWD websites fluidly switch to accommodate differences in screen size and resolution, image size and scripting capabilities. When the user changes screen orientation, RWD sites respond to optimize the portrait or landscape view.

Practical and Sustainable

RWD is a “one-Web” solution, eliminating the need to create and maintain separate traditional and mobile-optimized websites. Built on a single code base, RWD sites are easier to update and maintain than multiple sites. They enable the use of a single URL, so there is no need for elaborate redirection rules when users switch devices.

RWD is also a sustainable solution, accommodating most new mobile devices and browsers seamlessly as they are introduced. With a well-executed responsive site, marketers can meet the make-or-break expectations of more users today and in the future than dedicated mobile websites or sites that apply an adaptive Web design (AWD) approach.

RWD is not just about adjustable screen resolution and automatically resized images. Peter Sheldon of Forrester Research says it requires a philosophical change in how a multitouch point experience is approached. He says RWD compels designers and developers to sit collaboratively, side by side, to think about “all the screens all the time.”10

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Three Keys to Successful RWD

Because developing a single set of code to address all experiences is complex, attention to detail is critical, or RWD results won’t meet the high expectations of customers or your business. Here are three key questions to ask as you plan and implement your RWD solution:

  1. Will it serve content adaptively across all of the most important devices? RWD is all about delivering the optimum experience to every user, regardless of device. That requires a start-from-scratch approach to planning, beginning with a comprehensive internal and external discovery process. It also requires designers and developers to adopt an aggressive mindset, thinking broadly about the full range of possibilities. An effective RWD site, responsive to user preferences and behavior, should surpass the limitations of AWD, an approach focused on specific devices that typically produces a less universal and unsustainable solution. RWD should provide a high-level experience for all users, regardless of device, plus continue to meet expectations as users adopt new devices or as updated browsers are introduced. But, don’t think of RWD and AWD as mutually exclusive philosophies. As with AWD, your knowledge of the devices your customers favor most should help guide your pursuit of RWD.
  2. Does it load fast and function effectively on all relevant networks? Mobile users demand speed above all else. Your site must load fast and provide optimum performance on all networks, including cellular networks that can deliver slower and more irregular connectivity. Because RWD sites are based on a single and potentially larger set of code to satisfy all users on all devices, file and image sizes must be minimized. Content can be prioritized to further improve loading times. Network speed can vary by geography, so if your audience is global, the deficiencies of third-world networks can’t be ignored. Close collaboration between site designers and developers in the early stages of RWD can make all the difference in how fast and efficiently your site delivers content to all users.
  3. Is it designed to take maximum advantage of RWD? Adopting RWD requires in-depth collaboration between business managers and the design and development team to ensure critical needs are addressed as the site is created from the ground up. Make sure business goals and audience insight are always front of mind. Clear calls to action will maximize conversion performance. If your target audience splits online consumption between traditional computers and smartphones, providing a very similar experience on every device may be more important than if they are more likely to visit you exclusively via mobile or desktop. The upfront investment of time and budget to effectively implement RWD will be greater than simply reskinning or updating the content of your current site. To realize the full ROI on your investment, make sure the organizational structure makes it easy to maintain and issue updates, so your site remains effective and viable for the long run.

RWD isn’t perfect, and in cases requiring entirely separate mobile and traditional experiences, it may not be practical. But, it is the best option available for most marketers who are driven to provide an optimized experience and earn the business of today’s mobile-empowered customers, regardless of the devices they choose to use.

To create and implement the most powerful mobile strategy for your business, start by discussing all the possibilities with the digital marketing experts at Blue Flame Thinking. Contact Steve Schmieder at sschmieder@blueflamethinking.com or call 312-327-5120 to learn more.

Join us for part three in our series: “Mobile Use Patterns Across Generations: 4 Ways Age Can Matter in Your Mobile Strategy.”

[1] Bill Siwicki, “Exclusive: Mobile now the primary way consumers shop online,” internetretailer.com, posted Sept. 4, 2014, retrieved November 2014.
[2] 2015 Internet Retailer Mobile 500, Internet Retailer, August 2014.
[3] “The Value of B-to-B: Quantifying the role of the business-to-business information and media industry in the buyer-seller relationship,” The Association of Business Information & Media Companies, July 30, 2013, version 1.1.
[4] “What Users Want from Mobile,” Equation Research/Compuware, July 2011.
[5] “What Users Want Most from Mobile Sites Today,” google.co.uk, posted September 2012, September 2014.
[6] Charles Arthur, “Android is more fragmented than ever. Should developers or users worry?,” theguardian.com, posted Aug. 22, 2014, retrieved September 2014.
[7] “Gartner Says Worldwide Traditional PC, Tablet, Ultramobile and Mobile Phone Shipments to Grow 4.2 Percent in 2014,” gartner.com, posted July 7, 2014, retrieved September 2014.
[8] “The Digital Consumer,” The Nielsen Company, February 2014, page 9.
[9] “Mobile Technology Fact Sheet,” Pew Internet Project, January 2014.
[10] Peter Sheldon, “Understanding Responsive Design,” Forrester Research/Adobe Connect, 2012.

Steve Schmieder

Steve Schmieder

Steve continually calls upon his 30 years of marketing expertise to help clients and their brands get to a better place.