Ever since early smartphones burst onto the scene, they’ve been revolutionizing the way users view and interact with the internet. Whether you work for a startup that is building its web presence for the first time, or a legacy company like the Old Farmer’s Almanac that was founded in 1792, there’s no denying the importance of users being able to search for and view your site across their many devices.

The experience you’d like to offer those users has a few options, and none are one-size-fits-all. Here’s an explanation of each option from our Guide to Responsive Design to help you decide which fits you best:

  1. M-dot Sites (the Mobile Experience)

M-dot sites began gaining popularity in 2010 as smartphone adoption took off and companies realized that the experience of trying to interact with a desktop site on a smartphone screen was simply not cutting it.

As techniques like responsive and adaptive design have become more common, the prevalence of M-dot sites has decreased significantly. However, M-dot sites can still be a good option under certain circumstances.

If your users are engaging with you on mobile but the experience is very different than the desktop, or even tablet experience, your site may be a good candidate for an M-dot page. This experience often works in conjunction with your app and your site. In fact, the end goal, conversion, may be the same. In these situations, responsive web design doesn’t fit the bill and M-dot will be a better option:

  • Traffic is 90% or more mobile-only and you do not get a lot of repeat users;
  • Your users interact very differently on desktop vs. mobile;
  • A responsive desktop experience is still too clunky, long, and involved on other devices and you want to remove steps for other devices

2. Apps

An app can be an alternative, or it can be a companion to your site. Many companies choose to have both. Some companies start with an app and then move to build out associate websites. In general, apps tend to be easier to navigate and are made to specifically cater to the conversion activity. The experience is often stripped down; the app is not the place to do research but rather to convert users. There are specific use cases where an app might make sense as an alternative or standalone:

  • You have revisiting users and have very high (90%+) mobile traffic;
  • An engaging app will build brand loyalty and encourage repeat visitors

If your purchase is a one-time thing/experience, then an app may not be right for you. However, generally the question will be whether it makes sense to have an app as a companion or not have one at all.

3. Responsive Design

As a design technique, responsive design aims to present consistent UX and UI to a user across all devices. A responsive design is composed of one universal template that responds to its surroundings, meaning the web experience will alter in response to the user’s behavior and environment. As the design moves across devices, its components shift accordingly to fit the available space. This functionality is made possible with a mix of flexible grids and layouts, images, and an intelligent use of CSS media queries.

Because the design itself responds to the environment it’s in, a designer doesn’t need to maintain multiple versions of a website; a single shared codebase can be used across multiple device types. Here are some situations where responsive may be best for you:

  • When traffic is coming from a variety of different sources and users will completing the same actions regardless of device;
  • When you will be making a lot of changes to your site and it’ll be too onerous to make updates on each separate version;
  • If you are updating an existing site in order to make it more mobile-friendly

4. Adaptive Design

Adaptive design sounds as though it should be similar to responsive design, but it is different. With adaptive design, static layouts are built specific to various screen sizes, with the most common being: 320, 480, 760, 960, 1200, and 1600 pixels. While the overall layout may seem responsive, there are distinct elements for each screen size. An example would be an image that changes depending on the screen size or the number of fields in a form changing.

There are UX benefits to adaptive design, but this technique involves more work on the back end because changes must be made across each device versus one codebase. This make iterative testing or updates tricky and involves multiple updates per device. Adaptive is right for you:

  • When users require different experiences depending on their device (doing a thorough analysis of your users will help you evaluate the best course of action);
  • If you are looking for more control over content and layout;
  • If you are updating an existing site in order to make it more mobile-friendly

Bonus!

Desktop-Only Experience

Today, it is fairly rare to see desktop-only, or a desktop browser on mobile. Anyone who’s had a smartphone for the last several years will remember how difficult these sites are to navigate. Not having a mobile experience means a lot of pinching and zooming, which doesn’t make for a great user experience. However we’d be remiss not to mention desktop-only because there are some circumstances where going mobile doesn’t make as much sense.

In general, the reasons for not having mobile presence are usually out of the marketing team’s control, such as lack of support, money, or expertise. Sometimes the company has taken steps to have a mobile presence for part of their business but hasn’t yet optimized across their entire site. Here are some occasions, even if few, where desktop only could make sense:

  • When you have very little to no mobile traffic;
  • The experience is strictly for desktop – i.e. you don’t want users purchasing on their phone or researching/interacting on mobile;
  • Your main targeted audiences primarily use desktop

Even in these situations, we’d still make the case that there is value in either responsive design or having another presence beyond desktop, but that’s something every company has to decide for themselves.

Leave a Comment

Anthony Nguyen
Anthony Nguyen joined 3Q Digital in October 2015 transitioning from parent company Harte Hanks. Anthony graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 2004 and has worked in the technology industry since 2005. Anthony enjoys photography, fragrance collecting, and adding stamps to his passport.