In a world with so many device types, responsive design can be a godsend, but it also takes more time, money and effort. A new report from Forrester Research offers a tool for determining when responsive design for web sites is a good idea.

What’s a Responsive Website?

The report, “More Than Hype: Determining When to Use Responsive Web Design,” notes 43 percent of surveyed developers choose responsive web design (RWD) as part of their general practice. Report co-author Peter Sheldon, a principal analyst at Forrester, told CMSWire.com “major brands like GE, Microsoft and Nokia are adopting responsive web design.”

The report predicts  “responsive” will become a redundant term within the next 18 to 36 months, as “digital experience decision-makers recognize the necessity of providing consistent experiences across digital touchpoints.” It adds  “working toward that goal without RWD is not possible.”

A responsive website, in the report’s nomenclature, is one with a single URL and code base. It adapts to a device’s presentation and features through the use of fluid grids, flexible images and cascading style sheets (CSS) queries that determine what kind of device the site is running on and then rendering the site appropriately. Sheldon emphasized the essential point that “one set of code is delivered to all devices” and the browser uses CSS to detect the device and apply the correct code sections.

The report distinguishes a RWD website from an adaptive site, in which multiple sties are built from different files and then the appropriate version is delivered to the device — a smartphone-optimized site, for instance, instead of a desktop/laptop-optimized site.

Benefits of unified web development for display across desktops, tablets and smartphones include the ability to build one website with different implementations for different devices instead of separate sites for each screen and platform type. Other pros for using RWD include a single code base, reduced maintenance time and “a single device-agnostic URL structure.”

Seven Questions

The downsides include a factor pointed out in this report by Mike Wolf, director of technology at interactive agency Cynergy: “When you make changes to the desktop version, you might break the mobile experience.” Other arguments: RWD is time consuming, it’s not supported by older desktop browsers and there might be performance issues because you’re expecting multiple platforms to act as they should.

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Part of the Responsive Web Design Decision Tool, in this Forrester report.

So, when should you pull the trigger on going RWD? The need to target mobile devices is the key driver, but Forrester recommends first answering seven questions:

  1. How many devices/screens will the project need to support? The greater the number of different presentation venues, the greater the argument for RWD.
  2. What is the budget? Forrester found RWD sites generally cost between 50 percent and 200 percent more than traditional ones. However, the cost factor may be in RWD’s favor if it eliminates the need for a company to build different sites for desktop, tablet portrait, mobile portrait and mobile landscape, etc.
  3. How complex is the content and how many unique page formats are there? RWD alleviates some complexity because of the ability to reuse templates and other components.
  4. How soon do you need it? RWD takes longer.
  5. Do you have solid creative, HTML, CSS and Javascript skills available? Top notch skill sets with these technologies and others are required.
  6. How long will your project be live? It might not be worth the time and cost if the lifespan is short.
  7. How important is the “findability” of the site? If it’s important, co-author Sheldon noted, it’s best to use responsive design. With separate sites for mobile and desktop/laptops, there needs to be one URL if there is essentially the same content, or else Google and other search engines will penalize the publisher for spamming.  One URL means a mobile user is sent first to the desktop/laptop site, then redirected to the separate but similar mobile site. If the redirect breaks, Google will also penalize for broken links. Google, Sheldon says, favors responsively designed sites because of their unified structure.

To help assess the answers to the questions above and determine if RWD is worth the effort, Forrester included a question-based tool where answers to these questions can be quantified to generate a score. The sum of your answers can help determine where on the scale between standalone mobile site and responsive site this project falls, providing a useful decision-making tool in a report that addresses an increasingly important issue.