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Responsive vs. Mobile Design

Increasing use of mobile phones has changed the way users interact with sites, and major search engines like Google have responded by adopting elements like mobile-first indexing. Responsive design and mobile-first design both seek to address changes in online visiting habits and SEO requirements, but use different strategies and design processes to achieve that end.

How Users Interact with Sites

Back in 2010, only about 20 percent of a person’s online-time took place on a mobile device. At that point, designing with mobile-friendly features wasn’t necessarily a top priority for businesses.

Now, recent figures estimate that mobile traffic accounts for at least half of all web traffic worldwide. If half (or more) of your traffic is originating from mobile devices, it’s crucial that visitors to your site can access your site from a smartphone. At the same time, you can’t rule out the importance of desktop computers, laptops, and tablets as well. First impressions are important, and consumers take website design and ease-of-use very seriously:

  • • According to 85 percent of adults surveyed, a business’s mobile site should perform as efficiently (or better) than the desktop version.
  • • If your site performs poorly on a mobile device, 57 percent of users won’t recommend your business to others.
  • • If they have a bad experience on your site, 88 percent of consumers are less likely to return.
  • • Website users form an impression of your website, mobile or otherwise, within 50 milliseconds.

SEO: How Search Engines Interact with Sites

If you don’t design with mobile capabilities in mind, you’re also missing a crucial element in your SEO plan. Starting in 2018, Google rolled out mobile-first indexing, which means that the bots that “crawl” each page of your site will prioritize the mobile version of your web content.

So, if your website isn’t optimized to perform well on a mobile device, it may hurt your chances of securing a high ranking on Google. Luckily, solid practices in both responsive and mobile-first design can satisfy Google’s mobile-first indexing and support your SEO efforts.

Mobile First vs. Responsive Design: Crucial Differences

Both responsive design and mobile-first design seek to address the same issue: ensuring that users, regardless of their method of accessing your site, enjoy a quick, efficient, and aesthetically-pleasing experience. With solid responsive or mobile-first design, your users should have a sufficient experience regardless of how they access your site. However, there are some crucial differences between these two designs.

1. Difference in Design Process

Responsive. A responsive website needs to perform well regardless of the device used to access the site. To do so, the initial site will be created to suit a desktop but optimized to adapt to any screen the user chooses. While the site’s functionality and content will be primarily geared towards desktop viewers, mobile visitors should still have an easy, streamlined experience when visiting the site. Sometimes this is known as “graceful degradation,” meaning that the site will scale down its elements from desktop to mobile phone.

Mobile-first. While responsive design prioritizes the desktop view of a website, mobile-first is optimized to smartphone usage from the beginning of the design process. First, the content is designed so that it will look and function its absolute best when accessed on a phone. From there, developers will ensure that the site is also fully functional if it’s accessed via tablet, laptop, or desktop.

2. Content Differences

Because responsive websites are first and foremost built to accommodate desktop viewers, they have the capability to present large amounts of complex information easily. For example, a B2B website that includes multiple charts, heavy forms, and in-depth analyses of a product might function better with a responsive web design. Viewing complex information on a desktop is simply easier and allows for simpler interaction with multiple menus, diagrams, and complicated information.

By contrast, mobile first design accommodates content that is more sleek and minimalist. Key information is laid out very clearly for the user to navigate even on a small screen. Content may be shorter, cleaner, and less complex — but should always be very easily accessible for the viewer. Businesses that opt for mobile-first design often know that their target customers tend to access online info via smartphones, and adapt their content accordingly.

3. Implications for Online Visitors

In the hands of a skilled team, both responsive and mobile-first designed websites should work pretty well for your online visitors, regardless of their preferred method of accessing websites. However, when you reflect on the different types of content that function best with either design, then it’s clear there are some slight implications for online visitors.

For example, even if the page elements of a complex-content-heavy responsive web design load well on a mobile phone, the content style itself might create a headache for some online visitors. By catering the design process for either desktops or mobiles in the beginning of the process, you can ensure that your key customers are receiving the absolute best online experience.

4. Progressive Advancement

Designing for mobile-first websites embraces the concept of “progressive advancement,” which means that features are created in order to accommodate the decreased capabilities of a smaller device like a smartphone.

When designing mobile-first, certain features that may be used for responsive designed websites will be cut right from the start. For example, hover features (involving the mouse of a keyboard) are irrelevant in a smartphone and will probably be eliminated. Same goes for certain animations, charts, HD images, and large graphics. Features that can’t perform functionally with a mobile phone’s bandwidth are simply avoided — leaving room for developers to seek a more streamlined approach right from the start.

How do You Choose Between Responsive and Mobile-First Design?

Regardless of which option you choose, if you partner with a good web development team you’re going to wind up with a site that performs adequately across devices. However, it makes sense to cater your strategy to fit your business’s needs as closely as possible. If you’re in the process of designing or updating a web presence, ask yourself these questions:

  • • What devices do your customers use? Figure out who your customers are and how they’re accessing your site. If they’re primarily accessing your products and services on desktops or laptops, then it makes sense to go with a responsive design.
  • • What sort of content are you offering? Is it your site’s goal to offer succinct information to share with your prospective visitors? Then you might want to go with a mobile-first design. On the other hand, if your business model require that you share vast quantities of complex information to your customers, a responsive design might be your best bet.

Design Your Strategy for Next Year

It’s absolutely crucial that your website is accessible and functional on any device that your online visitors may choose. In the age of mobile-first indexing and the accelerating use of smartphones to access the web, it’s non-negotiable.

However, choosing between mobile-first and responsive design as a strategy requires a close look at what your website offers, who is accessing your site, and what content you need to convey.