Elaine McVicar, a digital interaction and visual designer, recently took some time to give content26 her take on the debate around responsive design and mobile-specific sites.
Responsive web design relies on media queries to figure out what resolution a screen is and uses fluid grids and flexible images to scale a website to that screen. Too much tech speak? Basically, responsive web design is an alternative to having a separate site for every device, and aims to adjust a site to the screen sizes of varying devices to maintain good user experience.
As Elaine emphasizes, consistency is always a good goal in web design. Whether this is achieved through responsive design or a mix of website and mobile app will depend on the business.
Responsive Design: A “Hygiene Factor” for Desktop Sites
content26: What should companies that sell products online think about first when planning a mobile strategy?
Elaine McVicar: You need to ensure you aren’t thinking of your mobile strategy separately. It should be one element of your entire multichannel strategy. Whether it’s digital, social, or in store, everything needs to follow one strategic vision. All channels working together will help you create a consistent brand and shopping experience–engaging your customers more successfully, increasing their loyalty, and potentially increasing conversions.
But with all channels, including mobile, you must think of your customers first. Research who they are, what their needs are, and how can you satisfy these needs–whatever the channel. You don’t have separate desktop and mobile, online and offline customers–you have customers that research and purchase in a variety of situations and on a variety of devices. Spend time understanding them as people, but also your analytics–what are their online behaviors, when do they access your site and on what devices. This can give you some good insights on how your customers are engaging with you and how you can improve your mobile offering.
It can be very frustrating to battle with a mobile site that thinks it knows what people want to see.
content26: How can those businesses best optimize content for mobile?
Elaine McVicar: “Content for mobile” is a slightly contentious statement. Expert content strategists will tell you there is no such thing as “good writing for mobile,” just “good writing”! The rules are simple, though–create clear, easy-to-read content from a human perspective.
Find out what your customers want to know, and make the information as concise and easy to digest as possible. Always have clear and informative headlines to help with scanning–start with the conclusion then expand with more details.
content26: Do you think people expect different content when they’re researching products on their mobile phones?
Elaine McVicar: I would say it’s wrong to make assumptions and generalizations, but from personal experience people want to find content quickly and easily. If they know content exists on a desktop site and know how to find it there, it can be very frustrating to battle with a mobile site that thinks it knows what they want to see and cuts out content deemed unnecessary. This can have a very negative impact on the customer experience.
Google carried out some lovely research of the “new multi-screen world” and found that people research across devices. They may begin researching something on their desktop at work and then move to their mobile while commuting, completing their purchase on a tablet in front of the TV.
However, creating a mobile-only solution can allow you to really focus on specific tasks, letting the user achieve certain goals much more quickly.
Research carried out on customers’ behaviors and goals will give an idea of possible different priorities of content between desktop and mobile, but I think consistency is always a safe bet. If you’ve designed the site well, considering the key user journeys, then whether a user is on a desktop, laptop, tablet, or mobile, they’ll be able to achieve their goals.
content26: What about the idea that mobile users want a different experience than they would on a desktop site?
Elaine McVicar: Again, assumptions are dangerous. In some contexts, providing a similar experience on both devices means you could be providing a substandard experience on both, but it could also mean that your user feels comfortable and confident about using the service on any device. Research and insight into your customers will answer this for you.
content26: For the purposes of retail, which makes more sense–responsive design or a separate mobile site?
What is simple on a mobile is simple on a desktop.
Elaine McVicar: I’m quite against mobile sites. I’ve had too many bad personal experiences and frustrations, both with inconsistent content and very different information architecture. You often find if a company has separate sites then either the desktop or mobile site will suffer. Only one will be maintained or regularly improved, as keeping both up to date can be unwieldy and expensive, and entirely different internal teams often control each one.
Responsive is a great solution if you get it right, and I feel it should definitely be a hygiene factor when developing a new desktop site. What is simple on a mobile is simple on a desktop. Using Luke Wroblewski’s Mobile First strategy can allow you focus on functionality and content to make a responsive site successful for all devices. Then adding adaptive content will give you the power to tailor your content to specific contexts, whether a user is on a smaller device or if they’ve arrived at your site from different locations.
However, creating a mobile-only solution can allow you to really focus on specific tasks, letting the user achieve certain goals much more quickly. For this I’d recommend a native or a hybrid app. This gives you greater access to device features and lets you provide content to your customers that they can access offline, as well as providing quick secure-access options. I love the simplicity of the PayPal app. You only need to enter a pin to access your details, and although it doesn’t offer the full functionality of the website, it allows you to carry out simple tasks such as checking your balance and withdrawing funds really easily.
content26: Does every B2C company that sells products online need a mobile strategy?
Elaine McVicar: Yes, definitely. While you are ignoring mobile, your customers certainly won’t be. The Going Mobile study by Foolproof found that people’s perception of a company was damaged if they didn’t have a consistent or good experience while using a service on a mobile, and nearly 50 percent of these people said they would stop using a service following a bad mobile experience.
While you are ignoring mobile, your customers certainly won’t be.
Aside from that, there is a growing percentage “mobile-only users“: 25 percent of people in the US and 22 percent of people in the UK only access the Internet on a mobile device. This means that many of your customers will never see your desktop site. A mobile strategy isn’t optional any more–it’s absolutely essential!
Elaine has over 12 years experience as an interaction and visual designer. Her background is in front-end digital design, and being able to bring this experience together with her passion for user experience values, she has been able to create successful products for a multitude of industries including tourism, retail, and finance.
She is currently Head of Visual Design at Foolproof, an experience design agency in London, where she specializes in solving complex interaction and visual design challenges across various devices and platforms.