Tangled Web

If you are in charge of delivering your company’s mobile strategy, then you are probably receiving multiple differing views on the subject from many different people. Should you go responsive, should you develop a separate mobile site, should you use a platform, or should you write a separate site for each device? (That last one seems extreme, but Ive seen it done.) There are a huge variety of options, all with their pros and cons, but which should you take?

Every approach is essentially a compromise. Each can deliver a workable solution, but there are drawbacks to some aspects of the delivery, so you need to choose which compromise to take and pick your route accordingly.

To assist with making the decision, many companies opt to put out an RFP, but this in itself presents a challenge, as it’s almost impossible to compare quotes on a like for like basis, because they are all based on different techniques. Some cost more upfront but deliver cost benefits in the long term, whilst others have low initial costs, but a year down the road, become prohibitive to maintain. Essentially, you need to become a mobile expert to decipher the responses, in order to find an expert mobile supplier.

To shed some light on the seemingly clandestine art of mobile web development I have provided here top-level pros and cons on the most popular approaches.

Responsive (or adaptive) design
This technique is currently getting a lot of airtime, and is viewed by some as the Holy Grail for mobile, and answer to all problems. Sorry to disappoint, but Im afraid it is a compromise. 

On the surface, responsive makes perfect sense; the idea that you can have your site respond to different devices (primarily based on screen width) and only need to develop one site, sounds like the best thing since sliced bread. But it’s when you stand back and think about the context of mobile that you find the compromises. A mobile user with a touch interface has very different needs to a PC/desktop user with a keyboard and a mouse. The navigation of the site needs to be different for these contexts. The compromise with responsive is that you are trying to fit a layout designed for a large screen into a small screen, without accounting for the context. This dramatically affects the user experience, and consequently, the site’s effectiveness.  

An example of this is a well-known insurance comparison site, where, on the desktop, the calls to action are clearly displayed on the homepage – this site owner really wants people to click on Home, Car or Health Insurance. When viewed on a smaller screen, the responsive elements kick in, and very nicely change the layout of the page for a smaller screen. Sadly it means that all the calls to action scroll off the page and arent easily visible.

A better solution would be to make all the calls to action buttons different so that they appear on the front page for mobiles. This could be done with responsive, but its complicated to achieve, and adds a huge amount of complexity to the code, which would make the site more costly and time consuming to manage, to cater for different devices.

Another big issue with responsive is page size. Typically, a responsive site delivers everything to the mobile and then the device ignores the elements it can’t display. A great example of this is the Channel 4 news site, which delivers an astonishing 2.5MB of information to your phone, a lot of which is not used. Given that we know that long page load times deter users; my average download time of over a minute when I use this site on my mobile is not encouraging.

Responsive design initially seems attractive. There are no license costs for software or middleware, and everything is done using standard web languages. Managing and enhancing a responsive site however, becomes increasingly expensive and risky as more and more diverse devices need to be supported, and the stylesheets get more complicated to build and maintain. And if your very talented web developer who knows how it all hangs together leaves? Well that’s a problem you probably don’t want to think about!

Having said all this, responsive design is good for certain sites – news (aside from the aforementioned Channel 4) and content sites are particularly suited to this technique, but transactional sites are just too complex. The responsive technique can simplify site creation with all the business logic in one place, and you dont have to manage two sites.  You also get a single URL, which means no redirect to a mobile-specific site and all the SEO benefits this brings.

A different mobile site for different groups of devices
If anyone is suggesting this approach to you then actually this could save you some time (especially if you are trudging through RFP responses) as it’s the one you can simply discount from the process.

A mobile-specific site
If you understand that mobile requires a different context to desktop, you typically opt for a mobile-specific site, which gives you all the flexibility you need to cater for your mobile-based users.

Here, you can design specific, optimised pages and manage the user journey accordingly. Your analytics will relate specifically to mobile users, and as a result, you can adjust the user journey to get the best from your site. 

Your PC site will automatically redirect to the mobile site and it will be available on an m. URL, so searchability and access to the site will not hinder your users, and they will get the best experience for the device they are using (with, of course, the option to view the PC site on a mobile if they want to). 

All the above gives maximum flexibility, but its still a compromise. You have to manage two sites which aren’t served from the same URL (redirect works, but from an SEO point of view it could be viewed as a separate site). Although the separate site should not duplicate content, some of the business logic may need to be different, and there is inevitably some duplication. Managing a separate mobile site without the benefit of a platform (see below) can become expensive.

Mobile platforms
There are a number of device-independent platforms that deliver all the benefits of having a separate mobile site, bring the added benefit of simplifying the management of multiple devices, and ensure that the site is future-proofed against new device developments. 

A platform will deliver cost savings on maintenance and site enhancements going forward, and as the platform manages new device releases, you should never be in the sticky situation of having to rush to get your site working on the latest smartphones and tablets – the platform should manage that for you.

There are generally more upfront costs associated with using a platform, as you might have to pay for licenses to use it, but if you think of it as less than the cost of a developer for a year (who could leave you at any time, taking the knowledge with them) and consider that it will keep your site in a manageable format that anyone can edit, a platform is well worth the money spent.

As I explained at the beginning of this piece, all the approaches that most people are considering are a compromise. In an ideal world the solution that you choose should offer at least a few of the following:

  • Deliver one site from one URL without redirection
  • Respond to different devices from one code base – mobile, desktop, tablet
  • Have the flexibility to deliver mobile-optimised content that is different to the desktop content
  • Reduce code duplication and backend business logic integration effort
  • Target devices based on a better granularity, not just screen size
  • No reliance on complex stylesheets to deliver different layouts
  • Only deliver the content the device needs, not the extra content that will get ignored
  • No reliance on developers to deliver complex bespoke technical solutions

All of the solutions that I have covered in this piece can deliver some of the above, but none can cover everything on the wish-list, which is why your decision is a tough one. The approach that you select now could determine the future of your entire business. We have all seen a number of recent casualties, especially in the retail space; once-successful companies have floundered due to an inadequate and inflexible online strategy. With the ever-increasing rate of change, I’m sure we will see more enterprises fail, because the technology they chose cannot keep pace with their customer’s demands.

You would think in this digital age, where pretty much anything is possible, a solution could be found to tackle the emerging needs of a multi-screen world; we are now beginning to see the emergence of “super platforms” that deliver a “one web” solution. This is a different approach, designed to meet the challenges of today and not built on techniques of yesterday. These platforms will ultimately deliver the mobile, desktop and tablet websites of the future. If you are in charge of delivering your company’s mobile strategy, it might be worth considering this new breed of platforms.


Mat Diss is co-founder and CEO of bemoko