October 4, 2016

Responsive Design: What problem are we solving?

Responsive Design vs. Mobile First

Let’s play a simple game called “What problem are we solving?”. The grand prize: increased profits, a team focused on efforts that truly drive results and a much better experience for your customers.

If you caught me speaking at Opticon in San Francisco recently, then you heard me explain why I encourage businesses to love their problems.

If you weren’t in SF, here’s the jist of it: Business all too frequently focus on solutions–a shiny new technology, the trendiest SaaS product, something they saw a competitor doing…the list goes on.

Now think about what might happen if instead of focusing your investments on solutions (money out), you focus them on reducing the number of problems your organization faces (money in). Our hypothesis is you will be significantly more likely to get a return on your investment if you solve real problems you actually have without creating new ones.

Another way of saying this: Your stack of problems has to go down for your metrics to go up. If the stack of problems stays flat, so do the metrics. If the stack of problems gets bigger, the metrics go down. Super simple concept, right? Yet many businesses–even some of the world’s leading brands and retailers–choose to ignore this simple strategy for improving their odds of generating ROI. When we started Clearhead four years ago, we were the same way–we know all too well the allure of solutions. However, we’ve since changed our ways and are seeing the benefits.

Now with every solution we invest in, we take time to fully understand exactly which problems we are and are NOT solving. This starts with asking two simple questions each time we consider a new investment:

  1. What is the main problem we really want to solve?
  2. Is this really the best solution to solve it?

For the purposes of this post, we’ll be applying these two questions to a very popular solution that digital businesses have been heavily investing in these past three years.

Back to the Game: What Problem are we really solving?

This edition of “What Problem are We Solving?” will be focused on the topic of responsive websites.

These days, the mobile screen is rapidly becoming the first screen—whether it’s being used for browsing, researching or shopping. In fact, mobile sales are projected to reach $123.13 billion in the U.S. this year, a 39.1% increase over 2015, according to eMarketer.

This explosive growth forecast shows that mobile is rapidly becoming the platform of choice for consumers’ entire shopping experience from discovery and research, to product reviews and purchase. It also suggests that marketers will need to up their mobile game to optimize their websites to offer a positive customer experience across devices.

In response to the fact that 50% (or more) or more of total visits are now coming from mobile devices and that these visits are not converting as well as the ones on desktop, many digital businesses have chosen the solution of  responsive design to enable their site to “fit” across a variety of screen sizes.

So…What problem is it really solving?

Let’s face it: people don’t behave the same way on their mobile devices as they do on desktops. They can’t. They’re in motion! We covered some of these mobile web realities in a previous post.

Now take a moment to ask the question: Is making the same UX from your desktop site fit for mobile–an experience that elicits entirely different behavior from visitors–really the best solution to solve the mobile conversion problem? Is this responsive design really hyper-focused on giving users the mobile experience they want? We’re not so sure.

Our hypothesis is the best solution to improve end-user mobile experience, improve conversion and give users what they really want would be to design an experience that exclusively considers MOBILE FIRST. Remember “mobile first”? It was the hotness before responsive design took over.

“Hey, responsive can be mobile first too. It’s just media queries and breakpoints.” I bet someone out there is thinking that right now. Please know that I agree with you…in theory. There’s no question responsive can be mobile first.

However, you have to take into account the reality of how responsive design is most commonly being executed today, and that reality for the vast majority is “make the desktop UX fit” and “consolidate to one code-base”. In its most popular form, typical responsive design projects rarely take a “mobile first” approach to create unique, device-specific experiences..

Underscoring this point, Forrester Research analysts expressed their dismay in a recent post over companies going directly to responsive design to make their websites “fit” for mobile. They suggest that the “one-size-fits-all” approach sounds “good on paper,” but it doesn’t take into account that people do different things on their smartphones than they do on desktops and tablets.

“To deliver great mobile moments on the web, you’ll have to take a page out of mobile app design to fundamentally rethink how you can deliver better mobile web experiences,” Forrester explains.

Two Problems Aren’t Better Than One

So…why are people picking the “make the desktop fit” flavor of responsive design to solve conversion problems and NOT designing custom, mobile first experiences?

Our take: Businesses are sneakily trying to solve two problems at once: Improving mobile experience for users while at the same time trying to lower product design and development costs for themselves by consolidating to one code-base.

The truth is it is easier and less expensive to adapt and maintain the single UX of the desktop site across different devices than it is to do unique, device-specific design and development. While you won’t often hear this as the top reason for responsive design, we believe it’s frequently as big a driver as solving the conversion problem.

“We can improve mobile conversion AND lower product design and dev costs.” Well, this combination of problems is a little different than simply solving for the single problem of low mobile conversion rates, and we do not believe they make for a great pairing.

If the goal was only to give users the best experience you can on mobile, your design and development investments should be going up, not down.

The Key to Winning the Game

The main point that I want to emphasize is the importance of maintaining a hyperfocus on the biggest problem you’re really trying to solve. If you lose focus on the problem, you’re highly susceptible to pursuing suboptimal solutions.

And if you pursue suboptimal solutions, you are less likely to solve the big problem…and therefore less likely to get the return you really want on the investment.

So what problems are you really trying to solve? With that BIG problem in mind, are you sure you’re investing in the best solution? If you use these questions to guide your team, your investments, and your organization, we believe you’ll be materially more likely to win the game that really matters.