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Responsive Web Design

Responsive Web Design has gained a LOT of momentum since its introduction in late 2010. This article aims to explore the negatives and potential benefits of Responsive Web Design against some other relevant design philosophies.

Firstly, it is important to note that Responsive Web Design is not a new technology. Responsive sites are still built using good old HTML and CSS. Responsive design is purely a design philosophy, unlike other website alternatives such as Flash.

Now, onto some of the drawbacks of Responsive Web Design (RWD).

Firstly, web performance. Responsive sites tend to be not much smaller, if smaller at all when viewed on a smaller device such as a phone or tablet. Last year, a study by Akamai tested 347 responsive sites using Google Chrome with different devices and the tool WebPageTest. Akamai found that page load times and file sizes were almost exactly the same, despite which device the test was being carried out on. The outcome, less content being displayed does not mean that the pages will load faster.

Secondly, the complexity of RWD. Because of RWD’s inherent complexity, much more time and effort is required by the developer to make responsive sites load faster on mobile devices. If you compare a dedicated mobile site with a responsive site viewed on a mobile device, there is no argument with regard to the point of complexity.

A typical mobile site has limited scripts, limited CSS and only a small amount of HTML. It’s built specifically for purpose.

Having said this, a perfect implementation of responsive web design is possible, but a responsive website, even tuned for performance, would still load nowhere near as quickly as a dedicated mobile site.

Cost and Time

If we were to compare the development time of a responsive website, compared to a standard website and accompanying mobile site, the difference would be highly noticeable, because of course, with a higher level of complexity comes the utilization of more resources at a higher cost.

With responsive design, the days of wire framing each page of the website for the clients approval are gone. Each page, now needs to be designed 3 or 4 times, for each device, making the design phase 400% more resource intensive than a standard website (not even including the programming phase of the development)!

The responsive design workflow is evolving all the time, however its plain to see that it is impossible to complete the same project without increasing the work required and thus the cost.

User Interface limitations

Despite the intentions of responsive design, it still does not give a comparable user experience to a mobile site. Sometimes, dramatically so. As an example below, take a look at Facebook’s responsive display on the right side, against the mobile version on the left side. Maybe not the best example, but it works for us here, showing a great user experience on the left, versus a very average user experience on the right.

mobile image

Mobile version on the left, responsive version on the right

The other main downside of a responsive site on a mobile device is that the responsive site cannot take advantage of a mobile sites tight integration with the hardware features of the device, such as ‘click to call’ etc.

What does Google say?

Well, basically Google says that Responsive is good, but if a mobile website is correctly implanted it is just as good, particularly from an SEO perspective (Source: Matt Cutts).

Indeed, Google and other major companies are busy working away on their mobile specific creations, with the best example being Google’s award winning ‘Google Now’ on Android devices. Does google have a responsive site for Android? Well, maybe it does, but it guides people away from its use by putting its mobile specific offerings in front of the user first.


Does responsive web design have its place on the web today? Yes, for sure! Despite its drawbacks with regard to cost of implementation, lack of mobile specific features etc, for the most very basic of sites, there is the possibility of its use being beneficial.

However, on all but the most simple of sites, a dedicated mobile site is still the way to go. Imagine having a responsive version of an airline booking site, or other site with a large amount of content. A responsive version would just have the user on an endless scrolling session!

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