Responsive Design vs. Mobile Apps

I recently transitioned my portfolio site, courtneyfrancis.com, to a responsive layout using CSS and media queries. The new layout looks the same in a browser, but reformats at smaller screen sizes to accommodate mobile devices.

I did a lot of background research for this project, and it seems like most website owners understand that mobile design is necessary, but there are a surprisingly low number of responsive sites. A organizations are increasingly relying on apps as their mobile solution, though often the app functionality could be easily delivered with responsive design. If you’re site’s functionality doesn’t require a mobile application, why build one?

Compounding the problem of usefulness is accessibility. A number of sites prompt you to download a mobile app if you’re viewing the site site from a mobile device. This is an effective tactic, but it can inconvenience someone who is just surfing and wants to view an image, read a headline or skim an article.

Google engineers have discovered that users won’t wait longer than 400 milliseconds for a page to load (!). If you’re expecting people to download, install and launch your app just to view your site content, you may be disappointed. Unless the app provides unique functionality, users may bypass the download to view the full site on their mobile device, or may just leave (as I did recently with the Daily Mail mobile – tabloid news holds my attention for less than 1 second).

Here are a few sites that have selected almost flawless responsive design over a mobile application:

  • The Boston Globe was one of the first high-powered sites to implement a responsive design, and it’s elegant. The site manages and displays a large amount of information, but doesn’t rely on a standalone app to do it.
  • One of the best examples of responsive design is Smashing Magazine. This site is image-heavy, which presents particular challenges that this site meets effortlessly.
  • ReadWriteWeb recently retired their iPhone app, in favor of a responsive website design.

I’m hopeful that mobile app bubble deflates a little, in favor of design that considers audience and content over trendy technology.