Responsive Web Design - Should We?

June 20, 2011    responsive web design rwd web dev

Responsive Web Design (RWD) seems to be causing quite the storm in our world at current, and I myself am quite engrossed within it's inner workings. At face value it seems like it could be the answer to designing for different, DPI's, Resolutions, and screen sizes. Whats more is it really could be the answer.....or could it? I'm not writing this to suggest my opinions are right nor wrong, this is just my analogy thus far. I've read a few books and have been keeping track on the on-going arguments on various other blogs and sites, but i'm by no means claiming to be a genius on the subject (disclaimer over with).

RWD for those who aren't familiar is in summary - all about cleverly designing your css stylesheets, to specifically target, segment, and adapt to changes in browser Resolution and DPI. Most importantly making it possible to target particular hand held devices like the iPhone, iPad etc. Using the css @media-queries functionality provided to us since CSS2 we can effectively target different devices within a few simple css rules. It's actually a great and inexpensive way to build an adaptable stylesheet so that your website is far more versatile to change.

It allows you as the designer to simply target and adapt my website, specifically to different resolution screens straight from your normal css stylesheets. Now don't be fooled, the ability to do this has been around for a while. But, only of late, with the steady traction of mobile browsing and surge of tablet's into the market, viewing our websites in lots of different ways has become a huge headache. But what we've also found has changed is peoples needs, from device to device, and how they interact with our websites. We've identified clients/customers/general public want a much different browsing experience when viewing from an iPhone to what they do when viewing on their PC/MAC. And thus far nearly all major websites are following the trend, opting for smart, toned down versions of their main sites to better serve their mobile visitors. Which I think is great, and precisely the right attitude to take. So long as you provide some means to view the normal site as a fail safe.

RWD looks to also change the way we design, instead of designing our desktop css and site first, instead we should opt to design for the simplest, most ancient and out of date displays first and build up to our most elaborate (in most cases: the desktop) last.

Now here's where my opinions come in, shoot me down if you will, or ride with me if you agree, neither matters to me very much as i'm probably about as un decided on the matter as you.

RWD for me, brings about a different way of approaching stylesheet design, and to the most extent, it provides a much better base for any website (given its worth the resources and time to create the extra stylesheet rules and you have a genuine use case). Here's what I mean by base:

If your site already has a specifically targeted mobile site, then great. No doubt you've got a major need for the mobile version and thus most likely the budget to support such a move. This would serve up in most cases a completely tailored experience to the user, dependant on screen resolution and DPI, which in my opinion cannot be bettered. However, this requires significant time, large investment, and very often a complete reworking of functionality. It can also often cause duplication and ever growing code bases to manage, which if your freelancing or a small team, might not be desirable until you know its worth the resources.

Otherwise I think RWD holds significant value, its a lightweight, inexpensive, and pretty simple way to make your site much more adaptable to change, and with the ever changing market, who wouldn't want that?

Now this having been said, like any tool out their, you can royally f$*k the implementation of this up and alot of the arguments and debates i've seen on this topic thus far have been hemmed on this. Specifically on when to use and when not to use. RWD would argue changing elements widths dynamically as the user resizes the screen is great, and you should do it on any device. However, I say, it depends largely on the implementation, and even more significantly on the implementer. It is 100% a useful tool given the right implementation in the right scenarios, however, much like anything on the web, interpretations are different and tools like this will often be overused. Whether RWD works for your site is down to your developer or if you are a developer, then its down to you. Don't sit their thinking simply adopting this movement will make your websites, amazing, cutting edge or WOW anyone. You'll only be putting your own head on the guillotine if you think RWD is necessary and needed for every project from now on. Instead carefully weigh up the pro's and con's, and make an informed decision based on results, demand, budget, and implementation time.

If I was to really stick my neck out, and risk it being severely beaten off by any interested passers by, I might go as far as saying I like to adapt design for small screen resolutions including the browser, to a certain upper limit. After which I think its pretty pointless endlessly expanding a design. Also I think you open up alot of potential problems when doing so, which with more complicated sites is definitely more of a headache than its worth.

As with anything in our opinionated little world of web development, you've got your haters and your lovers, that will never change. RWD can be a very useful ally, when you choose the right time to make allegiances, but don't expect it to be a complete game changer should you decide to take the leap of faith.


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