Mobile Guest Post: Is responsive design killing mobile?

Picture yourself at a work event. What are you wearing? What are you talking about? How loud are you talking? If you indulge at all, how much have you had to drink? Now picture yourself on a weekend trip with a group of friends.

We won’t go into details, but things look a little different, don’t they? We all change behaviors based on our environment. Physical location and surroundings have a lot to do with our mindset, and can influence how we do just about everything.

Behavior on a mobile phone vs. a desktop computer is no exception. Your physical location, state of mind and desired outcomes can be profoundly different depending on which device you are using, yet recent efforts to adapt desktop sites to mobile often ignore these differences and simply scale the online experience to a smaller screen. The result is a degraded end-user experience that may not meet the needs of a mobile environment, as well as disappointing outcomes for marketers and consumers.

A Brief Explanation: Responsive vs. Mobile Web

At the most basic level, it’s the difference between having one website or two. Responsive design allows the layout, scale and orientation of the desktop site to be adapted to a mobile viewing experience. The content served up to the user is the same as on a desktop site, and while they layout is organized to accommodate a smaller screen, it is important to remember that the integrity of the desktop site is intended to remain as true to form as possible and any changes to the desktop site will also affect the mobile site. Responsive design is concerned only with size and scale, not with the end user’s device type or presumed environment.

A mobile website is separate and distinct site from the desktop site, and must be maintained as such.  It is designed to cater to the mobile experience, and makes the assumption that the end user has different objectives than they would on a desktop site. This means the mobile site may not offer the full scale of content served up on the desktop version, and the options presented on the landing page may be refined accordingly.

Which is better? Well, it depends

Going back to the work party vs. weekend with friends example, it’s clear we adapt our actions according to our environment. However, the case can be made that there are some things we do no matter where we are. Here are some examples that seek to make the case that the suitability of a responsive or mobile site depends entirely on whether the people using your site are changing behavior based on their environment – or not.

Airlines – Lufthansa first launched its mobile site in 2007 and has committed to continuous updates to ensure the site best meet the needs of its 140,000 daily visitors on-the-go. They understood that the top activities on mobile were not the same as those on desktop. Someone accessing the site via mobile is more likely to have already purchased a ticket and is primarily interested in checking in, viewing their flight status, or reviewing their booked itineraries, and these options are prominently displayed on the home screen and accessible from any page on the site. Whereas one their desktop site, the first thing you see is the option to search and book a new flight, followed by promotional offers.

Weather – Weather is widely considered the most universal topic. It may just be one of the few things we have in common with just about everyone on the planet – weather is weather, no matter where you are. Not surprisingly, we tend to interact with weather-related websites in a similar way regardless of our environment, whether on a mobile devices as we do on our desktop. The basic goal is to check the weather in a particular location. Because of this, it wouldn’t really make sense for a weather company to create a mobile site in addition to a desktop site, as a responsive site will fit the needs of all users, regardless of environment.

Retail – Retailers probably have the toughest job when determining their mobile web strategy.  Because retailer sites are typically very robust, with hundreds – sometimes thousands – of pages, their challenge is to find the perfect balance between website features, driving desired actions and mobile functionality. A recent Retail Systems Research report revealed that 49% of shoppers on Smartphones actually abandon retailers’’ m-commerce sites to use the full desktop sites on their Smartphones.

This speaks to a misunderstanding of the way we use mobile on-the-go, and is the primary reason m-commerce severely lags e-commerce as a convenient way to shop. People are not likely to make purchases at the bus stop or at the airport. Their mindset on-the-go is quite different, which is why translating a desktop site and expecting the same behavior is unreasonable. The pressure is on to cater to mobile shoppers, but an uninformed investment will fall flat if retailers don’t first understand user behavior.

Other Considerations

Aside from behavior on a particular website, data exists to help us understand what kinds of activities are associated with the mobile experience vs. desktop. For example, consumers are almost 2X’s as likely to share content via mobile as they are on desktop, with iPhone users sharing the most at 3X’s more than desktop users. Facebook accounts for 60% of all shares, followed by Twitter and Pinterest. People are more direct in their search terms on mobile and typically use one word versus multiple word searches on desktop.

This effort to minimize the ambiguity of search terms speaks to a greater sense of urgency on mobile, and illustrates an effort to have desired outcome met quickly and with a reduced margin for error. The top purchasing categories on mobile are event tickets, gift cards and food, while on a desktop the top three buys are electronics, books and clothing. This discrepancy in purchasing categories is a manifestation of the distinct behaviors and motivations associated with m-commerce vs. e-commerce.

In Summary

The debate about responsive vs. mobile is moot. There is no way to make a recommendation on either implementation without understanding how people use your service on the go (i.e. via mobile) and how they use it on desktop (at work or at home, after dinner). The insights may surprise you, or they may not, but at the end of the day they will point to your answer. Is their behavior the same? Then use responsive. If it’s different, think about how different it is and whether a mobile site will help your customers better achieve their goals and more easily interact with your brand in any environment. Mobile adoption clearly depends on meeting customer’s needs. If these needs are not met, we might undermine the true potential of mobile and ruin the experience for marketers and customers alike.

Cezar Kolodziej, PhD is the President, CEO and Co-Founder of Iris Mobile. He is recognized as one of foremost mobile technologist and visionary experts on MMS, Rich Media Messaging and universal mobile marketing. He has more than 20 years of technology and managerial leadership experience.


114% Aggregate Year-To-Year Mobile Commerce Growth

Revenue generated from dedicated mobile commerce sites built and deployed by leading mobile commerce solution provider Unbound Commerce jumped 113.87%, for a same-store index of 350+ retailers, as compared to the same three-month period in 2013.

This impressive aggregate growth percentage shows that mobile commerce not only more than doubled year over year, but that the pace of this growth is accelerating. A report issued in April showed Q1 January through March growth of 101.45%. Mobile commerce revenue is the big number, but other metrics also showed impressive increases in the second quarter.

The average value of an order placed on a mobile device was up 31.45% to $108.89, versus $82.84 for the same period in 2013. Mobile conversion rates also jumped up solidly, increasing by 27.44% over 2013, as consumers demonstrate they are increasingly willing to convert sales via smartphone.

The total number of unique users increased 25.02% and the number of page views rendered to these users jumped up by a solid 47.97%. On average, each session rendered 6.29 mobile pages to a mobile site visitor.

Page load times dropped 10.33% in the second quarter and this is likely attributable to the fact that a number of top-tier sites were redesigned and re-launched, with the goal of improving performance. On average, Unbound’s dedicated mobile site page load times outperform transcoded “screen scraped” pages by up to 3X and responsive web design pages by up to 6X.

“We are seeing strong demand for our dedicated, integrated solution, as the performance pitfalls of responsive start to emerge,” said Wilson Kerr Unbound Commerce VP Business Development and Sales. “Our retailers are able to serve purpose-built mobile commerce sites that are far-more than shrunken versions of their ecommerce sites and the aggregate impact of this ability is adding up fast, in the form of incremental revenues,” he added.

Unbound recently published 3 Case Studies detailing specific success stories for Monster Cables, Finish Line, and Patrick James. Based on growing demand, integrated tablet commerce sites are being built for a growing number of Unbound clients. In-store mobile engagement is also a hot growth area.

The Case Against Responsive Design

The hype about mobile responsive design reached a crescendo about a year ago and it is easy to see why. On the surface, the pitch resonates. Why manage multiple sites when you can manage just one and have it resize itself for all channels?

Simple, right? Not so fast…

When mobile only made up 5-10 percent of a retailer’s traffic, the pitch resonated, but the flaws in this approach have been exposed as mobile commerce has grown far-faster than predicted and has evolved into a unique medium that drives significant revenue for retailers.

The notion of “one Web” for all audiences might suffice for content sites such as newspapers or magazines, but, for retailers, the mobile medium now deserves more than a reformatting of a desktop site, shrunk to fit a smaller screen.

According to comScore, mobile traffic now makes up 33 percent of all digital traffic for Walmart, 33 percent for Best Buy and 37 percent for Target. These are some serious numbers and for online pure-plays they are even higher and increasing fast.

And it is not just traffic.

According to eMarketer, 2013 mobile sales are up 68 percent over 2012. Deloitte just reported that almost 70 percent of U.S. smartphone owners intend to shop on their smartphones this holiday season, with smartphone market penetration now more than 60 percent.

According to IMRG/Capgemini, mobile commerce made up 23.2 percent of all second-quarter 2013 online sales, yet only 51 percent of smartphone owners reported making a purchase in the last six months. This means we are only seeing the tip of the mobile commerce iceberg. EBay alone will exceed  $20 billion in mobile sales this year.

As traffic and resultant revenues skyrocket, mobile is quickly evolving into a distinct medium that deserves to be treated as such. No longer does a “smaller copy” derivative version of an ecommerce site make the grade and retailers are starting to notice.

What about Google?
Google famously gave responsive a boost, when it “officially recommended” it back in 2012. But one only has to look at how Google makes its billions to see why.

A responsive approach makes Google’s job easier, as it can crawl and rank a single entity, versus several.

Google’s main point in this same post was to recommend 1) Having a mobile site 2) supporting deep linking and 3) fast pageload speeds. All three of these points, it can be argued, actually lean toward a deep integrated approach, versus responsive.

To be clear, having a mobile-specific “mdot” site does not mean search engine optimization (SEO) rankings will become “diluted” or hurt a page rank.

In fact, since its “official” recommendation, Google has specifically stated that a responsive approach does not benefit rankings and it is standard practice to add ecommerce page tags that instruct Googlebots regarding the fact that there is alternate content and where it can be found.

Another fact: Google itself uses rich mobile-specific sites, versus responsive.

Deriving value
The negatives of running all your channels of consumer interaction off a single base of HTML can be most-easily be seen when looking at performance rankings, as the same imagery, graphics and text used for ecommerce are re-rendered for mobile, while load times differ.

Also, a resized version of an ecommerce site means only what first exists on the ecommerce site can exist on the mobile site. This is called the “necessarily derivative limitation” and it is key to understand. This same limitation also applies to transcoded sites, by the way.


Pageload time rating

A mobile or tablet site  inextricably intertwined with the “upstream” ecommerce site features and functionality can trap retailers into an inability to shape the mobile site specifically for their rapidly expanding mobile customer base to capture maximum ROI and respond to evolving mobile buying trends.

A responsive approach also means the changes made to the ecommerce site can cause problems that cascade downstream, as graphics, text and site elements meant for large-screen ecommerce often translate poorly into the smaller mobile site context.

These problems are usually discovered when the new online retail content is pushed live and then negatively impacts the mobile site.

Much has been made recently of a re-positioning of responsive design, sometimes called “server side responsive.” And this is often positioned as a fix to “traditional responsive,” which necessitates a site replatform.

But this is really just a rebrand of the same solution, using better detection methodology to try to render different slices and dices of the site, based on the device detected. The essential limitation remains. It cannot exist on mobile if it does not first exist on ecommerce.

Building and managing a site built specifically for the mobile medium might take a little more effort, but the payoff is that a retailer can tailor the mobile site experience for maximum effect by adding mobile-specific features and functionality catered to a growing mobile audience.

An increasing number of large retailers are investigating ways to unhinge responsive mobile sites from upstream online retail functionality.

From Whole Cloth
An alternative to a “derivative” responsive mobile site, and certainly a transcoded site, is one based on a deep integration with an ecommerce infrastructure using API calls.

The template for the mobile site is unique and built from “whole cloth,” using best practices specific to the mobile medium. Data such as price, size, SKU, color, availability and imagery flows seamlessly in real-time from current ecommerce operations and is cached locally.

Third-party services are integrated and the software that powers the site can be licensed and hosted by the retailer, in-house. Promotional images are designed specifically for the mobile medium and loaded via a control panel dashboard.

In this way, current ecommerce operations are leveraged and extended into mobile, while the retailer has the freedom and flexibility to offer mobile-specific features and functionality designed to drive mobile revenue. And they have full in-house control of the entire site.

An independent survey of mobile commerce sites conducted by Marlin Mobile showed API-integrated sites load up to 3X faster than transcoded sites and up to 6X faster than responsive sites.

Industry-wide conversion rates for all mobile sites in their totality lag behind ecommerce, so reducing friction and ensuring optimal performance is an imperative.

A deep integration approach also does not necessarily mean more work for the retailer’s IT team.

While this is a common refrain among responsive solution providers, the fact is that once APIs are mapped for a specific ecommerce platform, this “pre-integration” can be applied to all retailers using it, with tweaks and additions made to link up third-party services such as recommendations or reviews.

Also, it is increasingly viewed as a positive to have the merchant IT involvement since more retailers want the option of licensing the software and running mobile on their own servers to take technical and creative control of a medium that is responsible for an ever-growing percentage of revenue.

MOBILE BUYING behavior is different and the medium is different.

As mobile grows rapidly, smart retailers are untethering the mobile experience from their ecommerce site functionality to take maximum advantage of mobile commerce in ways only just starting to be understood.

Wilson Kerr is vice president of business development and sales at Unbound Commerce, Boston. Reach him at This post was published as an article in Mobile Commerce Daily.