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It Adviser

‘Responsive’ Web sites not always the best fit

IT ADVISER

‘Responsive’ Web sites not always the best fit

Your practice Web site can give up a lot to fit laptops, tablets and smartphones all at once.

By Joe Dysart

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Joe Dysart is an Internet speaker and business consultant based in Manhattan. His e-mail is joe@joedysart.com; Web site is www.joedysart.com.

While often touted as the ultimate solution for the variety of screen sizes Web sites must accommodate, one-size-fits-all Web design is actually a trade-off that often end up as more trouble than it is worth.

The problem: These “responsive Web sites,” as they’re known — sites that auto-sense the screen size of the device and then reconfigure the text and graphics to fit — often render on desktop PCs with ridiculously large text and other overblown features that are tedious to wade through.

The impetus behind the approach makes sense. Web designers using responsive design take great pains to ensure that anything that appears on traditionalsized Web site will look good on the smallest of screens, even a smartphone.

“We are heavily pushing responsive Web sites to our new clients and updating a lot of existing sites to include this functionality.”
— Rupinder Dhariwal

NEW STANDARD

“Responsive Web site design has become the new standard,” says Ulf Lonegren, co-owner of Roketto (roket.to), a Web-design agency in Kelowna, British Columbia.

Adds Rupinder Dhariwal, co-founder, Creative Cranes (www.creativecranes.com), a firm that designs sites for ophthalmology practices: “We are heavily pushing responsive Web sites to our new clients and updating a lot of existing sites to include this functionality.”

Plus, by sticking with one Web site for all screen sizes, practices can generally save on design costs instead of maintaining one site for desktops and laptops, a second for tablets and a third for smartphones. “Updates are also easier to apply to versions for all screen resolutions since there is no need to work on multiple Web-site versions,” says Michael Dobkowski, president of the Web-design firm, Glacial Multimedia (www.glacial.com).

A single Web site generally translates into higher search engine rankings, given that all the traffic goes to one Web location. Split your presence between three sites for traditional, tablet and mobile, and search engines will split the traffic ratings accordingly.

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GOOGLE IS ALL IN

Some big guns in the tech industry, including Google, are all in when it comes to responsive Web design. “Many Web-site marketing firms had provided a minimalist mobile Web site in addition to a site designed to be viewed on a desktop” — and this was before the rise of responsive design, according to Dan Goldstein, president, Page 1 Solutions (www.page1solutions.com), a firm that builds Web sites for medical practices. “While Google had originally stated that this was a good option, more recently Google has made clear that responsive is better.”

Responsive design, adds Cyndi Miller of Miller Public Relations, which does design work for ophthalmology sites, “is not an up-charge or an add-on. It’s part of every Web design package we offer.”

‘TYRANNY OF THE TINY’

However, the problem dealing with the “tyranny of the tiny,” or ensuring every Web site looks good on the smallest smartphone, is that responsive sites often render as ridiculous monstrosities on desktops and laptops, and are often difficult to use on bigger screens.

In addition to poster-sized headlines, you’ll often find responsive Web sites use generous swaths of blank space that requires repeated mouse spins to scroll through on a desktop, but often look fine on a smartphone. Text-heavy Web sites can look more like train wrecks on a desktop.

One glaring example: On a desktop, the text on a responsive Web design often runs the full length of a 23-inch screen, so it shrinks nicely when viewed on a smartphone. For the mobile user, that’s convenient, since the responsive Web site reconfigures text margins to a palm-sized screen. But for the desktop user, reading a sentence 23 inches long is not so much fun.

And the presumed savings of responsive design may not be what it’s cracked up to be, according to Mary Hall, CEO of iHealthSpot (www.ihealthspot.com), a designer of ophthalmology Web sites. “Responsive Web sites are also more expensive to develop, so one has to look at ROI and how their Web site is used to determine if responsive is truly needed,” she says. “For example, if a client’s mobile traffic is less than 5%, we wouldn’t recommend the expense of a responsive Web site design.”

NOT SO ‘RESPONSIVE’

Incredibly, the scores of designers championing responsive design are either unaware of their lack of usability on desktops and laptops, or they’re silently willing to sacrifice that in the name of the iPhone and related trends. “It kind of becomes a fanatical point of view that they keep about their work,” says Mr. Jamshidi. “They design more for themselves.”

Media Queries (mediaqueri.es), for example, an ever-expanding gallery of the best and brightest that responsive Web design has to offer and one the responsive design community embraces, showcases dozens of Web sites that, when viewed on desktops, are simply bad.

Republic of Quality (www.republicofquality.com), for example, a Web design firm that Media Queries features prominently as a responsive Web site done right, is, actually, emblematic of everything wrong with the design approach.

The home page shows bloated text and graphics that look better suited for a children’s book than for a business-to-business Web site. Click to the “Our Projects,” page, and you’ll find text that runs the full length of a 23-inch desktop screen. Plus, you’ll be treated to one-sentence project descriptions that take four times longer to read on a desktop than they normally should because the text and line spacing is unnecessarily gigantic.

WHY MOBILE FIRST?

When challenged by desktop and laptop users regarding usability, champions of responsive Web design insist that with the frenzied proliferation of smartphones and tablets, mobile is the de facto standard and the days of desktops and laptops are numbered. Any rational designer, they insist, must proceed with a “mobile first” strategy.

Unfortunately, statistics tell a different story. In a 2012 study conducted by Comscore (www.comscore.com), which has been chronicling the Web’s evolution for many years, 92% of all devices connected to the Web were PCs; only 5.2% of that traffic was from smartphones. Tablets accounted for a paltry 2.5% of traffic.

Granted, millions of smartphones and tablets have been shipped since April 2012, but even Deloitte (www.deloitte.com), the market research firm, has predicted that 80% or more of all the Web surfing will be done on desktops and laptops, says Jolyon Barker, managing director at Deloitte.

Put another way: Sure, plenty of people are on smartphones tagging the Net for a minute or so while waiting in line at Starbucks, but serious Web users will continue to do so on desktops and laptops.

Bottom line: The next time a Web designer shows up promising to build you a state-of-the-art, responsive Web site that will deliver a consistent and optimized user experience across the wide variety of devices and platforms that Web surfers use, make sure you read the fine print.

Fortunately, if you’re reading it on a responsive Web site, it will be the size of a woolly mammoth. OM