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When Separate Mobile Sites Make Sense

Dennis Kardys Director of Design & Production
#CMS, #Mobile, #Design Advice
Published on February 16, 2015

Is responsive design or a separate mobile site the best next step for your company? Let's look at a few scenarios when a separate mobile site may be in your best interest.

You may have heard that responsive design is the way to go. And I agree. Responsive design is great—you should totally do it. But although it may be the ideal solution, it might not be your best next step. Let’s look at responsive design’s nefarious alternative, the separate mobile site, and a few scenarios in which it might be a sensible approach.

It can provide quick emergency triage.

While responsive design can be a panacea, the process of transitioning to responsive design can be quite involved. Well considered responsive designs take time to implement and internal politics can sometimes get in the way of project momentum. Depending on how well (or poorly) your existing site is currently rendering for smartphone users, you may be turning away a large portion of users each day. Building a separate mobile site can be a means of stopping the bleeding, and more rapidly delivering an improved experience for your small screen visitors.

It can be healthier than a messy responsive retrofit.

Many organizations are not poised to undergo a full redesign. In some cases, organizations may be sporting a freshly redesigned static-width site, and now want to go responsive. This approach of imposing responsive behavior onto an existing design is called responsive retrofitting. Retrofitting can be a smooth or rocky process, and is often dependent on the current state of your site’s code, or the degree to which different devices and screen widths were factored into the original design. Sometimes forcing a site to “become” responsive and dealing with legacy code and design decisions can be a counter productive effort. In these cases, it may make sense to develop a more adaptive, device agnostic design using a fresh code base.

It can help you plan more focused experiences.

The process of designing for small screens can be a great exercise everyone come to a consensus on what information matters most, and how to prioritize content on screen. Building a separate mobile site can be a great means of breaking conceptually free from the trap of “designing for desktop”.

Buy you time to get your content in order.

One of the biggest impediments to launching a successful responsive redesign is poorly prepared content. Pages that are riddled with inline HTML styles or randomly formatted content will not adapt gracefully to the fluid nature of responsive design. Auditing content and grooming it for responsive design is a critical step in responsive design planning. Building a separate mobile site can buy you some time with your mobile visitors as you begin to undertake more in-depth content preparation tasks.

A Separate mobile site is really just a stop gap.

In the long run, it’s preferable not to be maintaining multiple sites for different devices or contexts. Ideally you serve your visitors a single site, with a single source of content maintained through a single codebase. This is the way of responsive design, and ultimately, this is probably your best bet…for users, for SEO, for site maintenance and scalability. While there are some justifiable cases for when a separate mobile site makes sense, keep in mind that it’s just a stop gap solution, or better yet, can prove to be a starting point. By taking a mobile first approach to design, your mobile site can become the base you build upon, ultimately scaling up with additional breakpoints to evolve into a fully functional responsive site.