These days every business wants to accommodate smartphones and tablets with a mobile-optimized website, and there are two basic ways to go about it. Your site can be built to forward mobile users to a separate mobile site, with content formatted to fit smaller screens, and navigation optimized for touching instead of clicking. The other option is responsive design, in which one unified site has the flexibility to adapt automatically to best suit whatever device it’s being viewed on.
So the question facing everyone is, which do I choose? Which is better, mobile sites or responsive sites? It’s an extremely complex question, with some experts choosing a favorite and railing against the other side. The way we see it at Signal, neither solution is “best.” The appropriate choice varies depending on the circumstances; it’s essential to understand the fundamental differences between the two approaches.
In theory, responsive design is the more elegant and sophisticated choice, and it’s probably the overall direction that the mobile web is evolving toward. But for now, it’s not always practical. Responsive design is not a simple patch that you can tack onto an existing site — it typically requires a complete user interface redesign. So if you’re happy with your current desktop site, or don’t have the budget to redesign it, it probably makes more sense to develop a separate mobile site instead.
Responsive design also requires new ways of thinking on the part of developers, as well as more integrated collaboration between the design teams and technical teams. Each responsive site presents unique challenges to be solved through some measure of trial and error. As a result, responsive sites tend to be more expensive, and “perfect” results on all the possible platforms can be difficult to achieve. These problems will lessen in the future, as the responsive design process matures and best practices develop over time.
This is not to suggest that separate mobile sites are just an inferior alternative of convenience, though. There are cases where mobile sites make more sense than responsive design, regardless of budgetary or logistical factors. Responsive design serves one site to all, but sometimes you might value the opportunity to craft an experience specifically for mobile users instead. For example, users of a travel-oriented site are going to be concerned with research and planning a trip on their desktop computers, but they want easy accessible directions and itineraries while actually traveling. If your target users have distinct needs according to what device they’re using, a separate mobile site may be your best choice.
No matter how much business and developers may debate the pros and cons of the two solutions, in the end your site’s visitors don’t care whether it’s responsive or mobile. They just want it to work. And that remains Signal’s guiding principle as well.