There are two schools of thought when it comes to mobile webdesign: one is responsive webdesign (RWD), which aims to serve the exact same HTML (and thus content) to all users, but adapts the layout to suit each visitor’s device. The other approach is to build a completely standalone mobile site, with a different layout and different content, and to redirect users using server-side device detection.
Defenders of the second approach often cite “The Mobile Context” as their reason for doing this: they argue that people browsing from a phone are likely to be on the move and thus need to be able to get to the most important information ASAP. They might be on a slow data-connection, have a cheap smartphone with a slow CPU and limited memory, or might just be high-powered business people for whom time is money and who have little patience.
Let’s take a website for a restaurant, as an example. A mobile user is most likely looking for the address, telephone number for reservations and the menu, so we put all that info right on the homepage. Great! Now please explain to me why mobile users deserve such an efficient experience, but why people on a desktop browser prefer to look at a 2MB stock-photo of a girl eating salad and dig through a complicated navigation-structure instead? People like efficiency no matter what device they happen to be using. But marketing and unsubstantiated assumptions can quickly get in the way of correctly divining what people actually want from your site.
Many assumptions about people’s device capabilities are also flawed. Just because someone’s using a laptop doesn’t mean they’re on a broadband connection – they might be tethered to their 3G smartphone or using free Wifi in a coffeeshop along with two dozen other hipsters. Likewise, I might be using my phone to read something in the comfort of my own home and capacious wireless network – restricting me to a cut-down mobile site makes no sense here either.
The point is, you can’t predict users intentions and needs based on their device. We need to be building websites that are streamlined and efficient for all users. That’s why I find that mobile-first responsive webdesign is such a great design methodology: it forces you to prioritize your content from the get-go, so that you end up with a unified experience where all users get a good website.
Another likely reason why most big companies opt for a separate mobile site alongside their existing site instead of one responsive site is because it’s quicker to slap together a cut-down mobile version than to do a complete redesign. And that’s fine – it’s a long and hard process and few businesses can afford to wait that long while the competition might be stealing their mobile customers. But just remember that a separate mobile site is a bandaid – a temporary stopgap – and not a long-term solution.
Sooner or later, you’ll have to bite the responsive bullet.