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Top Ten Reasons NOT To Build Responsive or Adaptive Websites

11-03-11 Ben Callahan

A list of excuses and reasons why. Presented Simpson’s style.

A while back I asked on Twitter why some people aren’t building flexibility into their sites. Several of the reasons below come from that initial conversation. The others are reasons I’ve read or heard expressed in conversations with other geeks. Maybe it’s my age, but some pretty entertaining personalities start to show through the reasoning. So let’s look at this list through the lense of America’s favorite animated hometown. Springfield. Home to our beloved Simpson’s.

This list is intended to encourage those who haven’t tried responsive or adaptive web design yet due to reasons such as these. Of course, I haven’t captured all the possible opinions (or yellow characters for that matter)—feel free to chime in with your thoughts in the comments or on Twitter. 

Here we go...

10. “I don’t have time to learn something new.”

Chief WiggumAKA: The Chief Wiggum. Sideshow Bob’s trying to kill Bart again? Sorry, he’s a little busy running the opposite direction.

I can absolutely identify with this. I’m a person that has always struggled with making time for things I truly believe are important. Unfortunately, if you don’t make time to learn new things, you’re probably in the wrong business. Let’s face it, the field of web design and development is changing more rapidly than Jeremy Keith’s job title. To stay alive in this business you have to be proactive. Not doing so will force you to be reactive in a year or two, and it’s hard to be seen as an expert if you live in a cycle of reaction.

9. “My content isn’t suited to this level of flexibility.”

Krusty the ClownAKA: The Krusty. Don’t expect him to change. He’s been getting by with this schtick for years.

I certainly won’t make a blanket statement that any kind of content can be made completely flexible, but what are we talking about here? Generally, content on the web consists of:

  • words

  • images

  • audio

  • video

  • embeds

  • forms

All of these can be (at least somewhat) styled with CSS. You certainly need to put a little thought into the appropriate way that your site’s content should respond. However, this shouldn’t be keeping you from building a site that will make your content more easily available to people, regardless of their browser resolution.

That being said, here at Sparkbox, we are in the middle of a responsive retrofit for a large company website. There are complexities to this site which make this a monumental task. They have a very deep and unique navigation system. They have multiple pages with iframed content. They have a CMS that gives them much more control over their site than most. At the end of the day, we may have to make a compromise or two. This is okay as long as we’re keeping the user first in mind. This is how the industry evolves. 

8. “I don’t want to give up that much design control.”

McBainAKA: The McBain. Blunt force is a vunderful thing. There’s not much a rocket launcher can’t solve.

I find myself repeating this simple sentence: The web is not fixed-width. We force this fixed-width mentality onto the web by cramming our content into container elements and setting their width with pixels. Designing for the web is not about control, it’s about adaptability. To all you designers who love a good challenge, tackle this one: design a site that presents the content well at any resolution. This is what it means to be a web designer, and there’s a real need for people who understand it.

7. “The techniques are not mature enough.”

Comic Book GuyAKA: The Comic Book Guy. The naysayer to nay all sayers.

If this is your philosophy, you will probably always be late to the game. This stuff is over a year old now. Your clients aren’t waiting for the web to mature before they build their site. They want tomorrow, they want it today, and you can give it to them. Take the time to understand these techniques before you make a judgement like this. If you don’t, someone else will.

6. “There isn’t enough browser support.”

Agnes SkinnerAKA: The Agnes Skinner. Happy to keep complaining, waiting, and harrassing the letdown son, Explorer… er, I mean Seymour.

This argument is frustrating to me because these techniques are user-centered. Every modern browser supports them, and the work has been done to figure out how to link to and structure your CSS so that you’re serving the right files to the right browsers. Where there are holes in the browser support, there are very valid workarounds. Claiming this as a reason not to build a responsive or adaptive site seems a bit lazy. We’re paid to make sites, and people are rapidly changing the way they browse those sites. We need to grow as the industry does.

5. “Mobile devices browse my websites just fine.”

Ned FlandersAKA: The Flanders. Problem? What problem? Everything is okie-diddly-dokie!

This is somewhat true. When Apple released the iPhone, they made sure to demonstrate that mobile Safari did a great job of letting you browse the web as it was. We’ve gotten pretty good at pinching, zooming, and panning around the screen. But let’s be honest, it’s so nice when that’s not necessary. Serving a 960 pixel wide site to a small resolution device essentially positions the device as a barrier between your user and your content. A little flexibility in your design goes a long way toward removing this barrier.

4. “It’s too expensive.”

Mr. BurnsAKA: The Burns. Funny how Springfield’s richest nuclear power plant owner is also Springfield’s stingiest man. Don’t you think?

Ask someone who’s built a few responsive or adaptive sites about the difference in cost. You might be surprised to learn that the increase in cost, while not negligible, is very reasonable given the benefit. Also consider the future cost of building a mobile-specific site—or multiple apps for the several most common mobile platforms—and you can see that the math makes this a pretty attractive and affordable approach.

3. “My sites don’t get much mobile traffic.”

MartinAKA: The Martin. Okay know-it-all, Nelson’s gunna pound you if you don’t stop spouting off all your numbers and stats.

Hey, statistics don’t lie, right? We can all open up our analytics package to see how many mobile visits we had in the past week/month/year. Please remember that responsive and adaptive web design is not just about building a mobile site. While you have your analytics dashboard open, go ahead and browse through the one hundred or more resolutions that are visiting your site. How many of those are the exact dimensions of your fixed-width site? My point is this: Lots of different browser widths are accessing your site. Responsive and adaptive web design gives you a way to present your content beautifully to all these resolutions.

Additionally, site statistics are a representation of the past. If you haven’t seen the growth rate of mobile browsing, take a look. The tide is coming, and it’s coming fast. Responsive and adaptive web design is by no means future-proofing, but the inherent flexibility gives it a better fighting chance.

2. “It’s too difficult to maintain.”

MoeAKA: The Moe. Sure, he could clean the glasses with soap and water. But that takes so much effort and initiative. *spit*

There are some cases where making simple changes for your client can take a little more time. I remember a project where we were asked to swap out different versions of a client’s logo several times after the responsive templates were built. Each switch required us to do a little more testing to verify that the change worked through all resolutions. I can speak from experience; this doesn’t create impossible maintenance problems. It simply means you need to plan and test appropriately.

1. “People on mobile devices have different expectations for my site than people on desktops.”

MargeAKA: The Marge. Does that enormous hairdo house an enormous brain? Is that how she manages to be the only one in Springfield with rational thought?

Ah, the argument for context. Of all the excuses I’ve heard, this is the one that resonates with me the most. It would be ideal if we could determine what a user wants in a given context. However, this argument makes the assumption that a responsive or adaptive website is intended to provide a replacement for mobile-specific sites. This is missing the point. Responsive sites are intended to provide an appropriate experience of the site’s content for users regardless of their device. If your users need something different when they are on a mobile device, then build a mobile site. Responsive web design (when done properly—thanks @brad_frost) is always a right choice, but it’s not always the only right choice.

Author’s Note: Thanks to Drew Clemens for his assistance in giving a little “Simpson’s life” to this post.

Editor’s Note: Thanks to Matt Groening, Fox, and all those behind the Simpson’s. Please don’t sue us for using your imagery. It’s only because we love ‘em.

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