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Responsive Design vs. Mobile Websites: What’s the Difference?

Chris Osterhout SVP of Strategy
#CMS, #Responsive Design, #Design Advice
Published on February 17, 2014

There are many options when it comes to a mobile strategy for your business, make sure you understand the pros and cons before making a decision.

The number of people using mobile devices to access the web is increasing rapidly, which means it is important to make sure mobile users are able to get the best experience out of your website. But while the need to engage the mobile user is obvious, the question of how best to do so is one that every website owner will need to determine. Let’s look at the two main options for creating a mobile website and the pros and cons of each:

Option 1: Dedicated Mobile Website

When mobile devices for accessing the internet were introduced, the experience of viewing websites was often less than optimal, since sites designed for desktop screens were difficult to view when shrunk down to fit a small screen. The solution that web developers came up with was to create a separate version of a website that fits on small screens (for an example, see mobile.nytimes.com). When a user accesses the site from a mobile device, the site detects that they are using a mobile device and redirects them to the mobile version of the site.

A dedicated mobile website (also known as a mobile web app) is a workable solution for making sure your site is accessible to mobile users, but it comes with some challenges, including the potential need to create separate or even duplicate web content for the desktop and mobile versions of the site. This duplicated content may also have an adverse impact on Search Engine Optimization (SEO), and since the site uses device detection to determine which version of the content is displayed, some users may not experience the best version of the site if their device is not recognized.

Option 2: Responsive Web Design (RWD)

In recent years, developers have come up with another solution for making content accessible to mobile users. Responsive Web Design takes a different approach than a dedicated mobile website; rather than detecting that a mobile device is being used and redirecting to a separate mobile site, a responsively designed site will automatically resize and reformat a site’s content based on the size of the screen being used. This eliminates the need to maintain duplicate content for a mobile version of a site, and it provides the ability to Create Once, Publish Everywhere (COPE), targeting not just phones, but also tablets, e-readers, and any device or screen size that people use to access your site.

Responsive Web Design provides the best ROI for your website, since it is a form of “future proofing” a site to ensure it will provide the best experience for users even as new devices and technologies are introduced. However, it does require a large investment of time, effort, and money, since implementing Responsive Design requires the front end code (HTML/CSS) of a site to be rebuilt from the ground up.

What’s the best option for my site?

Responsive Web Design is Diagram’s preferred approach to designing a mobile site, but we recognize that it isn’t always the best choice for everyone. Companies with a limited budget for a mobile project or whose content isn’t optimized for a responsive site may want to invest in a dedicated mobile site in order to make sure they are able to reach mobile users. If you’re planning a full site redesign in the future, you’ll definitely want to consider implementing Responsive Web Design, but depending on your needs, you may want to invest in a mobile web app in the interim.

Looking toward the future

As more and more people access the web on mobile devices, we want to be sure this audience is always kept in consideration. We want to help you develop a successful mobile strategy, so please let us know in the comments below if you have any questions, and stay tuned as we discuss more about the topic, including how we can move beyond Responsive Web Design and enhance its functionality to provide the best experience for all users on all types of websites.