Responsive Design Is Always Appropriate

Whenever I hear someone say that responsive design isn’t always appropriate I wonder if they truly understand the reasons for designing responsively or how to actually go about creating a responsive site.

A little over a month ago Hiroki Takeuchi offered a post for why GoCardless ditched responsive design when redesigning their site. Elliot Jay Stocks followed with a post about why that made him sad, while arguing in favor of RWD. This was followed up a week later by Andy Appleton another of the GoCardless developers, suggesting that responsive design isn’t always appropriate.

Give all 3 posts a quick read if you haven’t seen them yet. My favorite, of course, would be Elliot’s since I agree completely with what he said, though do read the other 2 as well to understand the arguments against RWD.

Responsive Web Design book cover

Countering the Argument Against

Hiroki offered 3 points for why GoCardless decided not to go responsive.

  • They claim only 2% of traffic was visiting the site using a mobile device
  • They claim a responsive design would take twice as long to implement
  • They claim they didn’t have the resources to create 2 different designs

Let me counter each.

  • Perhaps only 2% of site traffic was from mobile, because the site didn’t offer a good experience on mobile devices. After redesigning this site to be responsive, mobile traffic increased more than 300%
  • Once you accept the change in mindset, which I can understand isn’t the easiest thing to do, a responsive site takes a similar amount of time to design and develop as a static site.
  • Designing responsively doesn’t mean you create different designs for different devices. It means you create a single design that works well for multiple devices under multiple conditions.

Elliot’s post offers more details against each of the arguments and once again I encourage you to read it.

Andy’s follow up makes a different argument. He suggests that an information heavy site could provide a better experience by presenting all of that information on the screen and having visitors zoom in and out to find the content they want.

Unless you plan to build a dedicated site for every device and circumstance, at least one of your designs should be responsive.

I can’t speak for others (though a number of comments on Andy’s post will agree with me), but I’m more likely to leave than pinch and zoom or double tap to read your content. Zooming is a better experience than what we had before, but it’s generally not a good experience. At least for me and some of the people commenting on Andy’s post.

While I don’t have universal stats to support the above, I will again offer my own stats that showed mobile traffic went up 300% after a responsive redesign.

The time this traffic has spent on the site has also increased considerably. People using tablets spend about 20% more time on the site. Not a huge increase, though at tablets sizes there’s not as much pinching and zooming needed. On smartphones where there is a big difference, time on site is up 520%.

Responsive Design is the New Baseline

The points above aren’t really why I’m writing this post though. The main argument I see against responsive design is that sometimes a dedicated mobile version of the site is appropriate. I agree. Sometimes it absolutely makes sense to create a mobile version of a site.

When did the two become mutually exclusive, though? A responsive deign doesn’t mean a design that works on a desktop and on mobile devices. A responsive design should certainly work on both, but that’s not the definition of responsive. You can create a dedicated mobile version of a site and still have a responsive site.

Responsive design is the new baseline. Why is this so difficult to understand?

Unless you plan to build a dedicated site for every possible device and circumstance, at least one of your designs should be responsive. For most sites that one responsive design will be enough. For some a dedicated site for a particular device will make sense.

The reality is there are already more devices being used than you’re ever going to design for and more are coming. There’s zero chance you can predict all the devices that will be created between now and the end of life of your design.

Off the top of my head here are some different categories of devices that someone might use to visit your site.

  • Tablets
  • Smartphones
  • Laptop computers
  • Desktop computers
  • Game consoles
  • Televisions
  • eReaders
  • Vehicles
  • Appliances

The last one might be a stretch, but is it really hard to imagine people surfing the web on a screen built into the door of their fridge? I didn’t even include wearable devices like Google Glass and the rumored iWatch. The reality is you have no idea what devices and under what circumstances people are going to be visiting.

Depending on your site, it could make sense to design something dedicated for a particular site. When refrigerators are all built with an internet connected screen, I’d probably create a version of my recipe site tailored to one, but are you really going to tell me that you plan on designing a dedicated version of your site for every conceivable device that might access it?

For all the devices for which you don’t build a dedicated site (which will be most of them) you have responsive design. It’s your new foundation. It’s the baseline, a catchall design for all the devices and configurations you don’t specifically design for. Once your responsive design is in place, by all means create a dedicated site if appropriate for smartphones or tablets or whatever, but don’t assume it means you shouldn’t have a responsive design in place too.

Think progressive enhancement. Your responsive design is the new minimum. Make sure you have something in place that works across as many devices and conditions as possible. Then build dedicated sites on top of that minimum wherever you think it makes sense.


Please stop saying a responsive design may not be appropriate. In a world with an ever growing number of internet connected devices it’s always appropriate.

There are times when building a dedicated version of a site for a phone or tablet or game console makes sense. However, it’s not an either/or choice between responsive and mobile. It’s responsive + whatever dedicated design you think appropriate for your site.

Responsive design is the new baseline. It’s the new foundation for building a site and it serves as a catchall for everything you don’t specifically design for, which will include far more devices than you will design for.

Many sites will never need more than this baseline. Those that do will create device specific designs to enhance the responsive one, not replace it.

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

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