Responsive Web Design vs. Mobile Website Version: Which One is Right for You?

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Since smartphones became one of the dominant devices for surfing the web, marketers have typically had two ways of dealing with websites for phones (well, three if you include a still prevalent strategy — do nothing — but that doesn't count):

  1. create a mobile version of their website (i.e., m.website.com instead of www.website.com); or
  2. use responsive web design (RWD) to serve different layouts depending on available screen width.

The thing is, from there the facts become a little dodgy. Depending on which references you consult, mobile versions or RWD can deliver pages that get served faster. Some sources say that mobile versions are God's gift to maintenance, while others say that with RWD, maintenance is your friend. The confusion should be expected — helping companies move into mobile versions or RWD has become a legitimate business, and depending on what a particular agency specializes in, it's likely to say that mobile versions or RWD is always better.

Let me clear this up for you with three points:

  1. Doing nothing is a dangerous strategy in the long run. Just ask advertisers in the yellow pages.
  2. You don't have a dog in this fight. 
  3. What you need is cold, hard facts, and that begins with math.

Website Math

Before you get into mobile version vs. RWD, you should first learn about what mobile visitors want on your website and how they behave. This means getting familiar with the same questions you should be analyzing for desktop and laptop visitors:

  1. How are mobile visitors behaving? Are the traffic patterns different from visits to desktops and laptops?
  2. Have you observed what mobile visitors want? What are they trying to do based on the differences in your most accessed pages?
  3. What can you do to help mobile visitors find what they need? 

What all of this means is that as you fire up Google Analytics or Omniture or WebTrends, you already have part of the answer. Review what's different for desktops and laptops vs. tablets, and again vs. mobile phones. (While analyzing, keep tablets and mobile separate — the behaviors can be drastically different.)

Analyzing the Results

A mobile website wins if you get the following results: 

  • the top pages are wildly different; and/or
  • the tasks you need to emphasize require more customization.

Mobile versions will tend to work better if you need more customization. Since it's essentially a separate website that will be redirected to once a mobile device is detected, you can tailor the experience more and decide which pages don't need counterparts within the site. The m. or mobile. version can have significantly fewer pages, show more appropriate navigation elements and menus, and tie into the user tasks that match up well with visitor needs.

That means if the top pages vary wildly based upon your traffic monitoring tool, a mobile version of your site may be the better choice. Likewise, if you need to focus on different tasks, a mobile version will give you more granular control. See Facebook, ESPN or AOL.

RWD wins if this is what you find:

  • the top pages and assumed visitor tasks are largely the same; and/or
  • branding consistency across devices is of utmost importance.

RWD is a great practice for branding consistency, but there are pitfalls to be aware of. First, if the code is poorly written, the page will load all the elements (e.g., all three layouts), and mobile devices in particular will suffer as the pages are served since they're significantly less powerful than desktops and laptops. Second, "retrofitting" all pages to RWD can be cumbersome and costly, especially if you have hundreds to thousands of pages not designed with RWD in mind.

Still, getting it right can be a huge win for websites where the use cases are largely the same between desktops, laptops, tablets and smartphones. Some of the world's largest brands, and some of the most focused ones, use RWD to great effect. See MicrosoftOpens in a new window, GEOpens in a new window or Oxford DictionariesOpens in a new window.

The Right Solution

The important thing to realize is that neither solution is a panacea. Your visitors and their tasks will determine whether a mobile version or RWD is the approach you should take. The right solution is, as so often happens in the world of web experience, to do the math and follow the numbers. 

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This article originally appeared in Tim's Retail Online Integration column February 21, 2014

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