Separate mobile site vs. responsive design

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.

  • If a website’s target market is mainly mobile based then the user experience should be designed around them and in extreme cases a stand alone mobile site is necessary. What responsive design allows for is the restructuring of a website that is designed primarily for desktop use but gives a mobile friendly way of accessing the same information. It’s not the perfect solution but it is a solution.

    • Couldn’t agree more. You managed to say in one paragraph what took me a whole post :)

  • I agree with the overall message of your blog – that projected ROI should dictate the approach to cross-device design.  However, I can think of many scenarios in which there may be a business case for a separate approach to mobile.

    As an example, a hotel chain is more likely to be able to justify the additional development, maintenance and editorial costs associated with providing on-the-go travellers with an optimal mobile experience.  Out go the long descriptions of how suitable the hotel is for wedding receptions with enormous vanity photos and virtual room tours, and in comes a site tailored for a more intent-driven, ready-to-book-or-call-now salesmen who want to rest their heads for the night.

    Large online retailers could also benefit.  They wouldn’t balk at throwing a few hundred thousand at an optimized mobile site if they had a sufficient number of mobile visitors and their conversion rates increased by a few percentage points.  It’s all to do with ROI.

    The other consideration is that smartphone usage is rapidly increasing.  Some large organisations are likely to agree with your ascertain that mobile usage isn’t high enough now – today – to justify the additional expense.  However, they may look at projected growth over the next (say) 3 years and decide that now is the time to start the investment and get the necessary editorial structures in place.

    Demographics play a massive part if the justification of investment in mobile.  Mobile Internet usage is not coming at the expense of desktop usage, which continues to grow both in the UK and worldwide.

    The ONS has reported that:

     – 63% of UK households had broadband Internet access in 2009, and 18% of Internet users had 3G access (—households-and-individuals/2009/stb-internet-access—households-and-individuals–2009.pdf)

     – 77% of UK households had broadband Internet access in 2011, and 45% of Internet users had 3G access (—households-and-individuals/2011/stb-internet-access-2011.html#tab-Key-points)

    Its rapid uptake provides a compelling argument for investing in mobile.  Justification could be found in creating ‘standard’ desktop-based websites several years ago when fixed Internet usage was lower than mobile usage is today (and especially in projected use over the next 2-3 years).

    Age also matters; 71% of 16-24 year olds accessed the Internet on their mobile phone, with a normal bell curve down to about 8% of over 65s (—households-and-individuals/2011/stb-internet-access-2011.html#tab-Mobile-Internet-Connections).  So if your audience is younger, there will be more justification for a separate mobile site.

    In conclusion  (feel free to add an estimated reading time to my reply!)… as you say, ROI matters.  But given the rapid growth of mobile and time it takes to get editorial structures in place, I can see how many brands could justify investing right now.  It’s not for all brands, of course, and like all such decisions a sufficiently compelling business case should be formed beforehand, but I think you’ve been a bit too dismissive.

    Nielsen tends to look at things more from an academic perspective suitable for very large corporations (as his client base shows!), and what he says doesn’t always translate neatly into feasible plans for small to medium enterprises, but that’s far from saying that we can’t learn something more than beyond principle.

    • Wow! Thanks for such a comprehensive reply. You make a number of really good points.

  • I think that when Nielsen talks about lack of context in mobile use, he means that you actually see a lot less on a mobile screen. So for example your post is nicely structured with all these headlines and pull quotes and stuff. And all this (design) effort would be (mostly) gone when viewing it on a small screen. Or when there are some images (charts, graphs) that accompany text in some occasions they won’t fit on one screen and this leads to “lack of context”

    • See I disagree with that. If you look at boagworld on an iPhone all of that is still there and I don’t believe that is what he means. He is suggesting that mobile content should be different to that of desktop sites. That is my problem, because in my eyes that is just too much work for most organisations.

      •  The other consideration there is that there’s an assumption that people are looking for something different when they are on a mobile device than they are when they are on their desktop or laptop. Most signs point to the fact that we can’t assume that — many of us use our mobile devices to look for the exact same information we might be looking for  at our desks. And we want to choose what we get to see/read, not have a company make that decision for us when they have no idea about our context when we’re on the site via any device. The content may need to be presented differently across devices, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the content should be different.

        • Paul, the fact that your site is very well designed and that you are able to structure and present every post in a way that can be well perceived on a small screen is not a common case. 

          I bet that you spent some time to think about how it will look on a small screen. 

          So while I agree that the content should be the same. But I also think it should be different in the same time. A crazy idea and hard to do…

          Nielsen has articles on this matter to where he explains in more details how it can be done:


          Defer Secondary Content When Writing for Mobile UsersSummary: Mobile devices require a tight focus in content presentation, with the first screen limited to only the most essential information.


          Mobile Content: If in Doubt, Leave It Out

          Summary: Writing for mobile readers requires even harsher editing than writing for the Web. Mobile use implies less patience for filler copy.

  • Hey everybody,

    As stated in this post, I also mostly aggree with Nielsen. The biggest thing is that, conent sould be optimized for different devices.
    On the other hand, this doesn’t have to be done with seperate mobile say, for example. A clever developer, teamed up with a great designer, can do many things right. 
    Also, the user inteface can be optimized for different devices, things can shown, or hidden, different navigation may be displayed on a iPhone and a tablet.
    I think that the path is actually somewhere here, where new technology allows us to do great things on many devices.


  • Jakob’s post, as well as yours exemplify why this transition is proving to be such a struggle. Everything is measured based on todays processes, tools, materials and mental models. Content managements systems suck at enabling variations on content. Processes are based on the concept of designing once and with a high level of precision. Even browsers and HTML are woefully inadequate when faced with content/media/structures that may need to shift or transition in response to a change in context.

    All this is measured against our current idea of mobile users as some sort of distinct and homogenous group. When it comes to the web, a ‘mobile user’ is simply someone who happens to not be in front of a computer (and even that is increasingly untrue as surveys increasingly reveal long or frequent periods of personal device use at the office…not to mention the wide use of mobile devices in the home….it’s amazing to see people surf for 5-10 minutes on a small screen, while their PC is right in front of them…)

    We need to get into the habit of challenging all assumptions around how stuff currently works or we’ll end up like the newspaper and publishing industries…bogged down by tools, processes and overhead that prevent true progress.

    Note that I’m conveniently not commenting on Jakob’s conclusions or yours as the situation is currently all over the place. Content can just as often conspire against responsive design (rencent conversations with financial services, health care and government clients come to mind…poor structure, hard coded styles, overtly lengthy content that can’t be reduced without costly and time consuming legal oversight etc.)

    My best suggestion lately is to (if possible/practical) implement a separate site, but make that site responsive and use it as a giant A/B test enabling you to slowly streamline content, determine what can be trimmed and how to simplify interactions for *all* users, not just the mobile ones. All this with an eventual plan of ditching one of the sites, but doing so once traffic, user behaviour and content goals are far easier to define than they are today. :-)

  • Derek Pennycuff

     I’ve been reading Nielsen for years so I think I’ve learned how to not let him get me riled up. He almost always has some solid core points. But he tends to over-extend them in ways that make it sound like he’s saying “These findings are true everywhere, forever.”

    I don’t think he honestly believes that. Otherwise he’d have stopped doing research by now and just rehash previous findings from similar studies with his new clients. And we get permission to be flexible within our own context with lines like “…if that’s true for you, then do go that route.”

    But he’s a pre-web researcher who works with big clients with deep pockets. Compared to those of us who either cut our professional teeth on the web or have learned to embrace the culture of the web Jakob’s methods are more formal (although not necessarily more academic) and less open or transparent than we are accustomed to. Then he presents his findings with a sort of old-school authority that I’m sure keeps many of his clients happy. But without being able to look at his data or his research methods ourselves
    his appeal to authority comes off sounding, like, just his opinion,
    man. And Jakob doesn’t have the necessary flair to build a cult of personality like Jeffrey Zeldman or Jared Spool or Paul Boag (or The Dude).

    Much like the design of his website, Jakob’s got presentation issues. But the core content is often pretty good. Personally I don’t think the modern UX movement as we know it today would exist without his body of work.

    • Absolutely agree Derek. I have a huge respect for Jakob Nielsen and I think you make some excellent points. That said, I don’t want these comments to turn into a discussion of Nielsen personally because that is a dangerous road. You may have shared some nice points about Nielsen’s approach but I wouldn’t want others to start criticising the man personally. I am sure he is a great bloke :)

    • Derek Pennycuff

      Stephanie Rieger’s comment reminded me of another point I wanted to make. I think in time we’ll see tools that ease the point of pain of content maintenance. NPR and the BBC seem to be moving in that direction with their in-house tools. And Karen McGrane (among others I’m sure) has been talking about the need to evolve our content management systems beyond dumb buckets for holding blobs of text into tools to truly manage content across the complexity of current and future device ecosystems. When such tools become available — and aren’t prohibitively expensive — then the ROI equation may shift dramatically. Although we’ll still have the issue of training and support for the content creators.

  •  Hey, this was a good read in response to Nielson’s post. I feel his thought’s on mobile vs responsive are pretty much just common sense really, based off ROI. I, however think it has been overlooked the cost of overhauling an already developed website and putting it into a responsive framework. Especially when a business may have already paid vast amounts to have their current website created.

    For example a local restaurant may have a fancy website, heavily flash based, but it looks great on a PC, and it costs them a lot of money. It would be easier to simply redevelop the entire site from scratch, in a responsive design but in keeping with the current look and feel of the corporate branding. In essence you’re re-building the entire site, and making the additional tweaks for the resizing/responsive aspects. And lets face it, there are always little niggling problems and issues which adds up and eats into the time spent on development.

    That above sounds like a pretty costly exercise. In essence, a brand new site build and the cost that entails. And bare in mind, these guys have spent a lot of their current, insuffient website a few years earlier.

    However if you instead provide a mobile website specifically for which there are many “skeleton models” available, onto which you just add in the branding and the page content needed. Whilst this is still a new site build, it’s only a smaller website and will take a fraction of the time. OK, you may not be able to charge as much to the client, but they maybe more affordable for more small businesses. And they may always come back to you in future for changes and maintainence.

    It gets a little more complex if there is dynamic content within the websites, or your client has a CMS. But there are workarounds for this on a separate mobile website.

    What I think I’m saying is that for clients with existing websites, an easy solution is a simple, small and quickly built mobile sub-site. For a brand new business, or one without a website in place, it would be good practice to give them a responsive website to fit all devices. And for those companies needing complex features or who are large organisations, it’s a case of Nielson’s cost-benefit analysis.

  • Great article. To your final point, we are only a year or two away from a point where mobile web usage outnumbers desktop usage. Also, a separated mobile website is not going to be right for every situation. The way I explain it in my blog post ( is this: responsive only solves 1/2 of the mobile equation, resolution. The other half is behavior, so if you expect that mobile users to your site are looking for different things, then it makes sense to separate that site. In the case of content sites, like blogs and newspapers, the behavior is usually not very different so responsive alone works.

    • I wonder why nearly everyone omiss the 3-rd way: making single site with server side cutoffs.
      We can analize user-agent header first to find good starting point while providing a way to change display mode via menu. The only problem here is potential accusation of cloaking, which can be easily avoided with `nofollow` / `noindex` rules. Am i wrong?

  • One thing that was missed in all that was advertisements. Website ads seem to be the first thing to go when getting to smaller screen sizes. I think it’s just a matter of time until ad affiliate’s start demanding  that their add be in the forefront of mobile sites.  When that happens mobile browsing is going to be not much more than a bunch of ads on every website that take up about three swipes of the screen before you get to the content you’re looking for.

    At that point business might have to eat the cost of a separate mobile site. Just to keep the website visitors from leaving and never coming back because of all the ads. A 60×60 ad isn’t that big on a 17″ screen, but on a 4″ screen, that’s all you’ll see.

  • I don’t see a separate mobile site being cheaper, in any way, than a responsive site. At best, you still have to code two websites. At worst, you have to write and maintain content for two websites separately as well as coding two websites. Responsive design only requires a few extra hours of thought and coding.

  • Thanks for the article. Well written and reasoned. 
    I found this point most interesting. 
    “Content should be different: shorter and simpler writing is required for the smaller screen because the lack of context reduces text comprehension.”

    Disagree. Content should be well written. Period. Well written includes being as brief, clear and engaging as possible. A novel is not long because books are big. It is long because telling rich, rollicking and intricate stories takes time. The discovery and evolution of each character and the story is part of that experience. Should it be cut down for Kindle readers? 

    We, as web pro’s, need to embrace the horror – we let too many words trample our sites. It has been a gradual creep that began in our infancy, just over a decade ago… Write well. Deliver to all. Your story doesn’t change because of an iphone or a dell or a kindle or any other device.

  • Understanding what your mobile users want is crucial to making a decision on how you build your mobile site. Working at a university, our mobile experience turned out to be far different than what people initially thought it would be.  We ran surveys for the users (faculty staff and primarily students) to determine what the main touch points and needs of the daily user would be.  Our goal from that data was to present content that the users needed at their fingertips in a lean, succinct fashion.  We did leverage using content in the CMS (actually the mobile site is part of the CMS) along with some additional content.  As a result, the mobile site gets as much traffic as the main site! Desktop users often keep it up in a tab instead of the main site because it presents them with quickly accessed content relating to what they need to get through their day on campus.
    Bottom line, check your ego at the door and  find out what your users want, not you think they will need.

  • Regarding the problem with different content for mobile pages.

    Although I can agree that writing content specifically for the mobile/desktop version of the web is a pain, a good CMS should be of great help there. By using proper content modeling (your CMS should support it),  and by enforcing the separation of the content from its presentation, you could only override those content elements that are not applicable for the mobile pages.
    Also, by making them more granular, one could use content elements differently in a mobile site. For example, a simple geolocation point could be used just for showing on a map in a desktop version of the page, but could be used for routing or in a “find the nearest” feature with a modern mobile device.

    So once again, it depends. Responsive design is surely something that solves a lot of issues (not only for the smallest, but also for the biggest screens),  and we will see more and more of it. On the other hand, if a business case is strong enough a specific mobile site could be the right addition.

  • Some smaller local business are DIY’ers and have websites that are awful on a smartphones and won’t spend to have a site redesigned and wouldn’t know what html5 or responsive design is. Adding a mobile website with features that will attract local searchers to their businesses with click to call, maps/directions/, hours of operation, mobile coupons, etc. can be a good return on investment for a local business. These features, that mobile users are often looking for when using their smartphones, are not all that labor intensive, and adding a blog feed to a mobile responsive site can take care of having to update 2 separate websites.

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  • bgrggfe

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  • bgrggfe

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  • bgrggfe

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  • bgrggfe

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  • Robby Russell

    We just published a white paper where we discuss the pros and cons of both approaches. I feel that too many people see a responsive design as a hammer and everything is a nail. Mobile != Web and we need to explore these unchartered waters with analytical curiosity. 


  • churchwebsite

    thanks for sharing this good much difference is in creating a mobile site and a nornal web site..

  • NathanHornby

    Why is the primary focus mobile?  The goal of responsive design is to allow a website to adapt to its environment; be it mobile (for which there are hundreds of resolutions), tablet, TV or the internet oven you’ll have next year – or even just the variety of desktop resolutions available.

    Mobile is a bit of a red-herring in the argument, and also the reason why dedicated sites provide a completely different solution to responsive design. Also, a dedicated mobile site has just as much potential to provide a better experience as a responsive design. Both rely on a good execution.

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

    This comment demonstrates both his misunderstanding of the way people want to consume information, and the massive grey area we are approaching when it comes to the term ‘mobile’. Mobile will not always = smaller screen + less time to read.

    The explosion of devices you can view the web on means that the whole concept of building two versions: ‘ mobile and desktop’  is swiftly becoming outdated. We will reach (or have already reached) a point where people will be browsing on resolutions and interfaces we simply could not imagine whilst designing. The responsive aim is to get to a point where it doesn’t matter how people are looking at your content. It will restructure and flow to fit. You design for everything and anything. Not two things. Ideological? Yes. Almost upon us and a harsh reality? Yes.

  • If you offer a service by your site, you should do a version. If not, do Responsive.

  • sonerkoyluoglu
  • Very well written. Thank you.

  • I don’t agree whatsoever with the statement that ROI should dictate the decision. The best experience for the USER should dictate the decision. Your customers deserve as optimal a browsing experience as you can provide, and anything less is by definition sub par. Too many business minds first approach their decision making with their own business goals (ROI) and as a result they produce a product that is crystal clear to their customers was about making money, not serving the needs of the customer.

    Responsive or mobile: what’s best for the customer, NOT ROI is the tie breaker.

    • Sam

      Websites are commonly not built for the customers’ sake – they are generally built to deliver ROI – unless it is a government/ council website where budgets mean nothing

      • Jim Brashear

        Bad websites are yes. The best products in the world focus on the user first. Think about it: Would Audi or Mercedes have a higher or lower ROI if they engineered and tricked out their rides just a little less and charged the same? Yes. They go the extra level because they know by making the absolute best product they can customers will love their product more. Same thing with Apple… why have they gained such a large following? Was it by ONLY worrying about ROI? No. In fact not worrying enough about it was why Steve Jobs was originally fired in the 80s.

        Bottom line: If you want a “ROI only” focused product you will probably make money. No problem – good for you. If you want a loyal following, a brand, and a successful growing reputation and company which all produce more ROI – make the best user experience possible. Remember word of mouth (not SEO, marketing, etc.) is and always will be the #1 best advertising you can have. If your product isn’t good enough to generate word of mouth – you won’t be reaching your true potential.

        • Sam

          you do not deny that ROI is the bottom line though, “loyal following, a brand, and a successful growing reputation” all are only of interest to Apple to increase their profit – most companies are in it for profit. Yes, the best user experience must be created – in order to maximise customer happiness so they spend more. Just saying.

          • Jim Brashear

            The reason for being in business is ROI – but if you make only ROI based decisions your product will suck. The #1 best way to earn an ROI is to be the best.

            I’m the Chief Technology Officer at my company, and my department’s very well aware that the rule here is “if you don’t think you’ve created the absolute best work you can, don’t bother showing it to me. It’s not done yet.” Now that doesn’t mean never release something because it’s not perfect, you have to have some baseline “versioning” – so you define what should go in version 1, version 1.1, version 2, etc. – and make sure that version 1 is executed as perfectly as it can be. It’s a balancing act.

  • I think that a reasonable rule of thumb is that the more complex the design and information architecture, the less useful a responsive design becomes. But that’s a guideline — not a hard & fast rule; all you need to do is look at The Boston Globe’s site ( to see that incredibly complex, responsive designs are possible.

  • Ekta Jain

    Amazing post! I totally agree with the points you mentioned in the blog. but it totally depends on how dedicated mobile developer your are for creating a mobile site or a responsive design….