Responsive Web Design or Mobile Skin? – it’s not as clear cut as you might think!

With all the talk of Responsive web design being the only future of web design you could be forgiven for thinking that the debate was over. So is it?

For those of you who are not familiar with responsive design – this is a technique where a web page re-formats itself depending on the dimensions of the browser window it is being viewed on without reloading the page. You can have loads of fun messing with your browser width and watching your site page  change in design – it certainly is cool!

Well first of all lets look at the central principle of Responsive Web design. The first commandment from the design boys is “Thou Shalt Start from Small”. Design for mobile and expand to your desktop design. This is good process whether designing in a responsive manner or not as it forces one to decide what the key elements are and how they should be displayed succinctly.

At this point you could be forgiven for concluding that responsive was the only way to go – so what of the problems of responsive web design? Well the initial downfall comes directly from the first commandment – in that in starting small requires you to design in s specific manner – minimalist and clean – which is fine if that is the look and feel you are going for, but may not help you if you have a specific brand feel that requires a more richly designed look.

There are other issues too such as some challenging cross browser challenges – especially if you are trying to deliver the aforementioned rich design. Riding side by side with ‘Challenge’ comes ‘Cost’ and ‘Risk’.

So what about the alternative – having a mobile skin? This in itself presents several challenges to the designer – how to present a useful navigation experience to the customer in a consistent manner across devices without causing confusion (or making your mobile site look like  dog’s dinner).  In the mobile skin world there is also a central tenet and that is ‘Power to the Customer’ – we have long preached that the most important part of a mobile skin is a ‘Switch to Desktop View’ button – to allow the customer to decide to sacrifice visual simplicity for additional functionality. This allows the designer to create his rich design experience in a desktop view and parse it in his mobile view – and allow the customers to choose what makes the most sense to them.

So what are the conclusions one should draw from all this? There is no doubt that the world is moving towards Responsive web design and rightly so, but it is not yet a shoo-in. As responsive templates and dominant designs improve so will the ease of implementation, but for now we should make our choice on a case by case basis – after all its all very well being at the cutting edge – but all to often it can be the bleeding edge.