Responsive Website, or Separate Mobile Website?

This is a question I’m hearing more frequently from clients these days.

Most of my clients who have older websites are curious – do they even need to be responsive? More and more my answer is ‘yes,’ for just about any type of business.

Responsive web designThe growth in mobile phone use for Web (browsing and apps) is still increasing; in January 2014 mobile Internet access overtook PC access in the United States for the first time with 55% mobile use – of that, 8% was through mobile browsers and 47% through apps. In my opinion, it’s become a necessity to have a site that is easy to read and use on a phone and tablet. In fact, every website I design is now responsive, unless the client prefers a separate mobile site.

So why choose one or the other?

Responsive Web Design

This means that a design adapts and changes its layout to fit the device it’s being viewed on. Fort example, on a desktop, a site may have three content columns, while on a cellphone those columns will be stacked one on top of the other. The font sizes may be bigger on the phone-sized deviced. The menu may change dramatically to make it easy for fingers to tap the links.

The goal is to make everything easy to read and the site features easy to find and use, not to have the ‘exact same website look’ in all devices. It means the user isn’t forced to zoom in to see tiny, tiny text, or to try to click 1/4″ links with a big finger.

Responsive design is an economical choice (there’s only one website!). Being one website, it’s easier to manage and update. Done well, content flows and resizes in each type of device giving a pleasant user experience on phones, tablets and desktops.

Separate Mobile and Desktop Websites

What if the client needs a very different presentation on phones vs. desktops, or wants to present specialized content on a phone? For example, a client with a store that needs a lot of customization of product menus and product pages on phones may opt for a separate mobile website.

A drawback of this approach is, obviously, two websites to maintain instead of one. That’s not always true – I built two themes for one WordPress website, where the theme was switched based on the browser size of the device being used to view it. This meant that there was only one website but two very different ways to view it depending on whether you were using a phone or desktop PC. This approach was considerably more expensive than a single responsive theme would have been, but looking into visitor analytics can help a company determine whether having separate sites or themes is worthwhile.

What About Mobile Apps?

It turns out that apps are way more popular than mobile web browsing. Does this mean that an app is right for your business? The answer is: maybe.

The advantages of a mobile app are that it can be used offline, and design can be tailored very tightly for a great experience for the user. But is it useful?

A mobile app for a mechanic that sends out special offers with notifications for scheduled maintenance? Now that could be worthwhile…

How can a mobile app support your business goals?

  • Does it encourage a visit to your shop?
  • Is it just for entertainment?
  • Does it provide information only – like a contact form and map?
  • Does it work like a digital brochure of your products?
  • Does it provide post-sale support, like account access?
  • Does it target local customers and send them special offers?

More ideas for mobile apps for businesses:

Summing Up

Choosing the best approach among these three options really depends on a few considerations:

  • Budget
  • Knowing your users and their access preferences
  • What fits your business best

But mobile does need to be part of your web marketing plan today. No question about that anymore!