Responsive Web Design and Mobile Context

There is an active, and very interesting, debate taking place right now in the web community about the merits of responsive web design—particularly how it applies to mobile. On one side of the fence you have the “one web” group who believe that you should be delivering the same content to both mobile and desktop users, typically anchored by a responsive approach. On the other side of the fence are people who believe that mobile requires much more than responsive design is capable of and therefore write the technique off as little more than a band-aid on a gunshot wound.

The primary issue that those opposed to the one web approach tend to mention is that responsive web design ignores the mobile context. This, of course, broaches the question: What exactly is the mobile context? The answer is not particularly clear.

It used to be. The mobile user used to be always on the go; trying to consume location related and task-oriented content very quickly. The problem is that this is not necessarily the case anymore. Phones are getting more and more capable and the browsing experience on many of them can be downright enjoyable. That has resulted in more people partaking in casual browsing on their mobile devices. Jeremy Keith hits it on the head in his comment to Paul Boag’s thought provoking post:

There’s also this assumption that mobile users have just one context (“I’m in a hurry! I need to find a time or a location!”) while desktop users have another (“I’ve got all the time in the world; I don’t mind wading through a bunch of irrelevant crap”) whereas, as Stephanie rightly pointed out—and I believe Luke Wroblewski is also doing user research in this area—this simply isn’t true.

People will use their Android phones or iPod Touches over WiFi while they are lounging on the sofa and people will use their laptops over 3G while traveling on a train.

Now tell me: which is the mobile context?

The issue is that there is no longer a clear mobile context. The stats seem to support this fact. Luke Wroblewski posted a summary of stats taken from Compete’s Quarterly Smartphone Report that pertained to where people are using their mobile devices to access the internet. The results were varied:

  • 84% at home

  • 80% during miscellaneous downtime throughout the day

  • 76% waiting in lines of waiting for appointments

  • 69% while shopping

  • 64% at work

  • 62% while watching TV (alt. study claims 84%)

  • 47% during commute in to work

One could argue that a few of these settings might lean towards our traditional view of the mobile context. I’m willing to bet that a large portion of the 69% of the people browsing the web while shopping are looking for information to help them make their purchase, perform price comparisons etc. Take a look at those top two results though—those aren’t your traditional scenarios of mobile use.

Let me be clear—I’m not saying that there is never a need to tailor the content of a mobile site. I’m also not saying that responsive design and one web is an end all be all for mobile. It’s not a black and white issue—there are many, many shades of gray. We shouldn’t ignore the unique needs and characteristics of mobile devices and their users—it would be irresponsible to do so. However, we should be very careful not to assume too much. Mobile context is important, but first we need to figure out what the heck it is.

Responsive design is just one piece of the puzzle. By itself it is, in many cases, an incomplete solution. It’s a tool, however, that when leveraged properly and in conjunction with the proper techniques (see http://yiibu.com for an example of what I mean) can greatly aid in optimizing for multiple devices. To assume it is the entire solution is a mistake; to discount it as a hack seems to me to be just as bad.