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August 13, 2014

Being responsive in a multi-device world

With the proliferation of mobile devices, Ronan Cremin, CTO at dotMobi, examines the increasing importance of Responsive Web Design.

By Duncan Macrae

With one in five searches now coming via a mobile device, according to Google, it is now easier than ever before to connect online.

We live in a world where we are used to rapid results, and have become more impatient – we want and need fast, relevant and usable content. When you last looked at a website on your smartphone or tablet, the chances are that it was either a mobile site (looks like an app and mobile friendly) or a website that changes size to fit the device you are using. The latter is more commonly known as Responsive Web Design (RWD) and is often used to build a website that is able to adapt for the range of screens consumers now use to access the Internet.

By definition, RWD is the process of creating website that provides a viewing experience across a wide range of devices (from mobile phones to desktop computers) by serving the same web content to all devices, reflowing and hiding some of it according to the device’s screen size. This technique has been a favourite for many businesses to ensure their websites are functional on smaller screens and devices. However, it is notby any means the only or even the most appropriate solution to our ever evolving multi-device society. Especially if your business has a distinct use case on mobile, such as transacting online or allowing users to accomplish specific tasks.

In fact, even Ethan Marcotte, one of the designers that first popularised RWD back in 2011, does not sponsor this approach for creating a specific mobile site and quite rationally suggests that the best approach depends on the project, commenting in his book: "But most importantly, responsive web design isn’t intended to serve as a replacement for mobile web sites. Responsive design is, I believe, one part design philosophy, one part front-end development strategy. And as a development strategy, it’s meant to be evaluated to see if it meets the needs of the project you’re working on." Highlighting that while RWD is a passable solution to achieve resolution independence, this is only a short-term fix in a world with an increasingly diverse number of devices and screens, all with slightly different capabilities and functionality. In short, RWD alone still falls short of building a made-for-mobile website.

The future of mobile surfing

Going back only about five years it would be iPhones and Blackberry’sthat were the predominant smart devices searching the web. However, things have changed a lot in just this short time, with the recent launch of various ‘smartwatches’ and Google Glass highlighting that a website that relies on RWD alone is going to struggle to keep up with these new screens. Unless a website knows what device it’s addressing, how can it deliver the most effective site for users to digest the information? In addition, it can be difficult for a website to ensure that it doesn’t send content designed for the wrong device -for example, serving content designed for a desktop to a smartwatch, for examplewouldn’t be good for anyone.

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One effective alternative to a pure RWD approach is ‘Server-side adaptation’- atechnique that has actually been in use since the dawn of the mobile web. This method relies on a device detection database installed on the web server to detect the device accessing a website and return accurate information about its capabilities in real time. Meaning that the website will know which phone, tablet, smartwatch or even smart glasses it is being displayed on. This allows the web developer to fine-tune the resulting page to adapt to the device’s capabilities with a high level of control.

This technique is used by almost every major internet brand – including Google, Facebook, Amazon, YouTube, eBay and Yahoo -that know the seriousness and importance of web content displaying correctly. With 82% of the Alexa 100 top sites using a form of server-side device detection to serve content on their main website entry point, it’s clear that this is something brands with large audiences,many of which are on mobile, care about.

For businesses to deliver a successful and effective mobile strategy, websites need to be able to recognise the devices they are addressing, as the chances that it’s a desktop becomeincreasingly less likely. From 52inch smart TVs to wearable tech – consumersexpect information to be displayed clearly no matter what it is they’re using. ‘Server-side adaptation’ can of course be used with RWD (a technique called Responsive with Server Side components or RESS), but for businesses that want to truly maximise the opportunity that device diversity and mobile offers, they must be able to serve each device category optimally – no matter what the device.

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