The discussion surrounding mobile design today by and large centers around whether mobile-only sites, responsive design, or mobile-first are the best design practices.
Newsflash: They are all bad.
And while they are all bad in different ways, each is fundamentally bad in one specific way: they design for the platform, not for the experience. By focusing on a particular platform to design for, they ignore the opportunity to create a dynamic site that is centered around an experience that is great no matter which device is used.
Defining The Problem
Before we get into that, lets briefly run through the specific ways in which each of these design practices is flawed:
Mobile-Only: This was the first approach to the mobile web and is still fairly common. You can usually tell because of the m. prepended to the domain. The basic problem with this is that it puts the user in a straightjacket; it makes hard assumptions about the content someone wants to access on a mobile platform.
Responsive: Simply resizing a standard desktop site to fit the smaller screen on a smartphone or tablet. This has the opposite problem from mobile only: it doesn’t recognize that people on a mobile phone are generally not interested in the same content as someone on a desktop, nor are they interacting with the site in the same way.
Mobile-First: Basically the opposite of the mobile-only approach, start by designing the mobile site first and then work backwards to make it functional on a desktop. The most glaring problem is that you are simply shifting from a mobile design problem to a desktop design problem. Leaving anyone accessing your website from their desktop using a poorly designed site.
A more subtle problem with all of these practices is that when we talk about “mobile”, we are really talking about two platforms: tablets and smartphones. Though both classes of device are “mobile”, they could be used in widely different contexts where the content that’s most important to the end user could be very different.
The Way Forward: Responsive Experience
Instead of creating a one-size-fits-all site or a completely different site that is decoupled from the main site, designers should focus on creating responsive experiences for each platform. This means creating up to three separate, but interconnected, experiences where each experience is responsive to the device that a user is using. Allowing users to transition smoothly between platforms while still creating an experience that works with the unique features of the platform and organizes content to reflect how that platform is used.
Getting Technical: How To Make This A Reality
Today’s content management systems allow for content to be uploaded into the system and then shared across multiple sites and pages. The real innovation here is that a single piece of content (i.e. a block of text, image, video, slider etc.) can then be presented differently whether that means resized or laid out differently in relation to other content without having to change the underlying architecture or code of the site itself. This approach works particularly well with SDL Tridion as its native Blueprinting functionality allows for the same content to be syndicated across ‘publications’, which enables us to deliver the best version of that content for each device.
Part of making this approach a reality isn’t so much a technical challenge but a perspective shift. It’s shifting away from “one user experience to rule them all” and towards “the best user experience of them all”. The discussion of how best to design for mobile, tablet or desktop should be part of a larger discussion about how to deliver experiences which treat users as individuals, as people.
Frank Taylor is a Technical Consultant at Tahzoo; the check out his personal blog here or follow him on twitter at @paceaux.