Separate mobile site vs. responsive design

Paul Boag

Is responsive design really the right answer? Would you be better having a separate mobile website? Its all about return on investment.

Yesterday saw a bit of a kufuffle on Twitter over Jakob Nielsen’s latest post about mobile and responsive design.

Many saw it as an attack on responsive design and there is no doubt Nielsen did use some harsh wording…

It’s cheap but degrading to reuse content and design across diverging media forms like… desktop vs. mobile. Superior UX requires tight platform integration.

I suspect like all of us he is not immune to the temptation of link bait once in a while. However, setting that aside, lets look at what he has said.

I agree with Nielsen (mostly)

Although I am a huge supporter of responsive design, I have to confess I agree with almost everything Jakob has written in this post.

The main thrust of his argument is two fold.

  • Building a separate mobile version of a site can lead to a better user experience.
  • The decision whether to build a responsive site or separate mobile version should be driven by return on investment.

Let’s look at each of these points.

A better user experience

Jakob Nielsen is not the first person to suggest that responsive design has its limitations. Even Ethan Marcotte who coined the phrase is pragmatic about its use.

Brian Suda (who has been writing about mobile long before anybody else cared) has talked repeatably about the need to take context into account.

Jakob points out some of the potential weaknesses in responsive design:

He goes on to list some other weaknesses that I don’t agree with, but the principle still stands. Creating a separate mobile site does allow for an improved user experience if designed well and if money is no object.

Its about the return on investment

For me that is what Jakob’s whole article is about. Its about return on investment. He recognises that responsive design is a great, cheap way of creating mobile websites, but that does not mean it is the optimal way.

He writes:

The question remains whether the cost–benefit analysis truly supports two sites, or whether it would be more profitable to stick with a single site.

For some sites, it might be cheaper than other implementation strategies; if that’s true for you, then do go that route.

In short he argues that if developing a separate mobile site is not cost effective, go for a responsive one.

I agree with this. I don’t support responsive design for ideological reasons. I support it because I believe that right here and now, it will generate the best return on investment for companies that still have low levels of mobile usage. That said, as Rob Borley has just written to me on Skype:

In a couple of years time, its all going to be very interesting.

When mobile usage surpasses desktop, I think we will be designing for mobile users in a very different way.

The problem I have with Nielsen’s post is that I believe he is significantly under-estimating the cost of having a separate mobile website.

The hidden costs

The tone of Nielsen’s post seems to imply that separate mobile websites are not massively more expensive than designing responsive sites. For example he writes:

With enough coding, all of these differences can be supported through responsive design. In fact, you could argue that a design isn’t responsive enough if it doesn’t accommodate all the salient platform differences. However, once you do account for all the differences, we’re back to square one: two separate designs.

Although I don’t entirely agree with him here he does have a point. Responsive design can prove massively time consuming to code if you decide to build an optimal mobile user experience. Of course, it can be done cheaper but the experience won’t be as good.

However, there is a major factor that Jakob has failed to take into account – content.

He proposes that for an optimal mobile experience:

Content should be different: shorter and simpler writing is required for the smaller screen because the lack of context reduces text comprehension.

This is a massive undertaking. Is he really suggesting that all content needs rewriting for mobile devices? What about blog posts or other content which is released on a regular basis? He has almost doubled the amount of work involved in content production.

We also need to consider ongoing maintenance of content. Let’s say a phone number needs changing. Instead of changing this in one place, it now needs updating in multiple locations. This creates considerably more work.

The same is true for editorial control. Editors who review the copy of authors have to check multiple versions of the same content. The content management system also needs to be configured to easily manage these multiple versions of information.

At first glance you maybe tempted to think larger organisations will be the only ones to take on these costs. However, I don’t believe even they could afford it (or at least justify it).

Large organisations typically have many content producers, complex editorial systems and produce large, complex sites. This means the cost of a separate mobile version of their site is going to be prohibitively expensive.

For me this is where everything falls down. Yes, a separate mobile website has the potential to provide a better user experience, but I struggle to see how anybody can justify it at this stage of mobile adoption, not when a cheaper alternative is available.

I guess one option would be to keep the same content, but have a separate mobile site. However, doing so removes the primary benefit of having a separate site. You might as well go back to responsive.

Let me reiterate one last time. Yes, I agree with Jakob in principle. However, I believe he has jumped the gun in terms of implementation. I am sure one day we will all be throwing money at mobile users because there will be so many of them. But that is not today and in the meantime responsive design is the best answer.

But, hey that is just my opinion. Feel free to shoot me down in the comments.