When to develop a dedicated mobile site vs. responsive theme

Submitted by Brian on March 6, 2013 - 11:36am

Over the past few years, responsive theme development has taking a heavy presence in the re-design of most all websites, often times side stepping the need for a dedicated mobile site. With the emergence of some very solid frameworks such as Zurb Foundation, Grumpy Framework, and Twitter Bootstrap, from a developer and UX standpoint, things are positioned quite nicely to just “work” saving development time as well as making mobile presence obtainable to smaller clients who would otherwise not be able to afford to also develop mobile.  

The Responsive Design:

Pros: 

  • Significantly more cost effective because it a single development process with limited extra IA/UX (but still an important piece). In addition, after the development is complete it is simpler to maintain a single site rather than having to update to separate systems. 
  • Responsive design lends itself very well to heavy content driven sites such as a blog, newspaper or magazine.
  • Avoid social media sharing from a mobile site that is still in mobile format when you are visiting the site from a desktop (e.g. mobile site: m.website.com gets shared to desktop users)

Cons:

  • It can be very difficult to interact with a responsive design site. Interactions such as sign-up, webforms, and shopping cart experience tend to fall short without significant extra work for smaller device sizes.
  • Traditional image advertisers often times do not like this method due to image resizing (sometimes text becomes unreadable if designed for a specific size) and object getting moving to less prominent area. 
  • Cross browser compatibility issues can be a headache for developers who are trying to optimize the site for devices, but does not translate well to older, desktop browsers

Dedicated mobile design:

Pros: 

  • With mobile development, it gives the ability to design a fully integrated workflow and navigation for the mobile audience (which is often very different than the desktop counterpart). 
  • Utilize native features for a mobile device such as the GPS and camera. 
  • Loading speeds are often times much better using the native code base VS. HTML5.

Cons:

  • Time consuming to develop and making updates require uploaded a new version of the app (VS changing it the sites webserver).
  • To support multiple devices, you may need to create many version of the same application (I.E. iOS phone and tablet, Android phone and tablet).
  • Adoption of an app by your targeted audience often times may take long time, and also limits the “quick try” due to people not wanting to download an app that they are unsure about. 

Together

In some situations, the use of both a mobile app and a responsive design site may make sense to build together.  Using the responsive site as more of the educational, content driven portion of the site, while the mobile app can handle logins, features, and notifications.