A few days back Luke Wroblewski posted an excellent article outlining the pros and cons of Responsive design, standalone device experiences, and RESS (Responsive Web with Server Side Components).
This much needed (and long overdue) conversation is a bit like the web vs native debate. There is no single correct answer, and the choice you make will depend on a host of factors, including budget, content type, audience, usage patterns and overall business goals.
What was not implicitly said in Luke’s article (and I think bears discussion) is that choosing responsiveness, as a characteristic shouldn’t necessarily define the wider implementation approach. Device Experiences (i.e. standalone sites, aimed at a group of devices) can also be responsive, providing the flexibility to support a much wider range of devices. While this on the one hand seems obvious, far too many sites still design either a single width or generically stretchy web site.
Aligning business models with user journeys
For Netflix, Amazon, the BBC and other digital-first (or digital-mostly) companies, the need for device-led experiences may be quite clear. With business models that rely on digital (discovery, purchase, delivery, and consumption), the choice of device cannot help but intimately affect the experience. These companies also understand that—especially in this day and age, that media consumption is rarely linear. Ensuring the best experience regardless of the device (or stage in the consumption journey) is therefore critical to their business.
For a whole host of other organizations (e.g. government and municipal services, educational institutions, manufacturers of physical products, experience and destination companies) the correlation between device class and engagement may be far more nebulous. It may therefore pay to first prioritize access and usability….and let usage inform what future “best experience” groupings might consist of. (Worth noting that in some cases, the best experience may have nothing to do with the web at all).
For these types of organizations, a standalone, yet responsive site could be an ideal strategy. A strategy that isn’t specifically defined by a type of device (smartphone, tablet, desktop, TV, automotive) but by the growing need to enable pathways between our physical and digital experiences.
Responsive sites can be fantastically versatile, especially when they are conceived—and in this case even remain—mobile first (…or mobile-only). A smartphone appropriate layout can easily morph into a tablet appropriate one—all the while remaining lightweight, as the site was conceived that way to begin with (…a cheeky but sometimes viable way to side-step the responsive image problem).
Choosing a responsive design also acknowledges that device groupings are (and likely will remain) messy and prone to interpretation. Is a (physically) large, handheld, call-enabled device with a resolution around 1280 x 800 considered a phone or tablet? Does the essence of the device somehow change once it’s paired with a TV, and interacted with from across the room? Or maybe paired with a keyboard, and interacted with for much longer sessions? And how should we consider the emerging class of mini-computers, designed to work with whatever screen and interaction mechanism you plug them into?
Mobile is an opportunity to reboot
Developing a standalone (but responsive site) provides an ideal opportunity for learning and experimentation. It enables you to re-focus your content, lighten and streamline your experience, and deliver real user value—without the (often all too real) burden of re-structuring your entire legacy web site.
Besides…a funny thing tends to happens when you engage in a project that compels you to work both responsively, and mobile-first. Somewhere along the way, it changes the way you think—all too often illustrating how out of touch that (legacy) thinking was to begin with. It also sets you down the path to change…but does so gradually, through engagement (and discovery), rather than dogma.
(A bit like that old saying about teaching a man to fish…)