Oh boy… This is one of those topics that everybody loves to talk about. People either love it, or they hate it. I’m talking about so-called “responsive” web design.
A responsive web site will automatically adjust its layout based on the screen or device being used to view it. So, when I view a responsive site on my desktop puter, it will look one way.
But when I view the same site on my smartphone, the different parts of the site will rearrange and modify themselves so I that I get a “mobile-friendly browsing experience.”
There are several problems with this responsive approach.
The number one problem is that it doesn’t make any sense at all when you really think about it…
Everyone has a responsive web site these days. Go view an article on Time.com, or the Washington Post. BAM! Responsive goodness! They’re hip! They’re with it! They realize the importance of The Mobile Revolution!
Well, sort of…
You see, the first problem with responsive design is that the so-called Mobile Revolution hasn’t exactly turned out the way manufacturers had predicted. As I remarked in my State of Technology Address at the End of 2013:
Yes my friends, 2014 will be a brave new world of technological excess, incompetence, and general insanity. And it will not be “The Year of Mobile” as some are predicting. If Google is making Google Glass (em, “augmented reality”, shall we say…), and if Google is buying up 1 gajillion dollars worth of robotics companies, then they don’t think that the future is mobile. If Microsoft is backtracking on Desktop Windows, then they don’t think that the future is one giant Mobile Candyland, either.
Furthermore, where is the incentive to get a cooler phone? Your crappy smartphone can already do everything you need it to do. You don’t NEED a 4K display. You don’t NEED an 8-core 64-bit processor. The “killer app” never appeared, and people are getting tired of existing ones. It’s the same reason you didn’t buy Windows 8: because it adds nothing, and it costs you money. Deep down, you know this. And so do the people who design and manufacture this stuff.
Have you used the Windows 10 Preview? I have. Guess what? They’re totally backtracking on the whole “mobile is the future”. They’ve finally realized that people will continue to use desktop puters for some time to come. They even decided to give Windows 10 away for free (sort of).
And how about that Smartwatch trend? That seems to have fallen flat on its face. Yup, that’s an article from 2013, and we’re now in 2015. But have you heard of any companies making a killing by selling smartwatches? The numbers are piss poor, which is why you only hear a lot of fluff about great sales from manufacturers, but you don’t see any actual impressive sales figures, and you don’t see many people actually wearing one: because nobody wants one!
And thank god for that, because if I have to redesign every web site to look good on a 280 x 280 pixel display, I’m gonna throw up.
How about tablet sales? Well, for example, we have:
Gosh, you mean everyone isn’t running out to buy another tablet, either? I guess manufacturers’ visions of a Star Trek future where we all have PADDs connected to a Faster-than-Light mainframe in the “Cloud” hasn’t really panned out. Go figure!
Now, despite all of this, you’re still supposed to make all your web sites responsive. Well, okay, let’s assume that mobile isn’t actually withering, and that it will be The Most Important Thing in the Known Universe. Let’s just forget about the fact that most people spend most of their time screwing around on their phones, playing games, Tweeting and FBing about things no one else actually cares about, and organizing their next social event (where they and all their friends will not actually socialize, but rather stare at their phones and send each other pictures of grumpy cats and “You won’t believe what happens next…” content). Yes indeed, the future is bright!
But, I digress…
To start with, have you noticed that all responsive sites look the same? That’s because everybody is using the same basic type of framework to make their sites responsive. It works like this:
- Download and add some JS and CSS to your site (by “some”, I mean anywhere from 148kB, up to several MB of added files that must be loaded every time somebody hits a page on your site)
- Redesign your site in a “Grid Layout”, whereby all the content is inconveniently (and often hideously) contained in little boxes
- Resize your browser window to pretend you’re viewing the site on a mobile device
- Watch in amazement (and horror) as all the boxes of content in The Grid magically rearrange themselves in such a way that your site looks nothing like it did before!
- Pay no attention to the fact that the whole thing really sucks and is ugly as sin
- Go tell all your friends how awesome you are (with your phone, of course)
But forgetting about that, what about screen resolution vs. screen size?
Let’s see… I have a desktop monitor that is 22″ diagonally, and it has a resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels. I also have a smartphone that’s a 5″ screen, and also 1920 x 1080px. Now tell me, how is my responsive design going to actually look good on both screens? And what about newer 4K screens that are basically 4 times the resolution of my FullHD screen?
And what about images? If people are uploading images to my web site, what do I do with those? In order for an uploaded image to look good on a FullHD or 4K screen, that image must be frickin’ huge. Does anyone actually have the bandwidth or storage space on their servers for 8MB images? I sure don’t.
Here’s a fun thing to do: Load Facebook. Then, resize your browser window to be really tiny, like a low-res smartphone, and reload the page. Notice anything? Of course you do! It’s not responsive. There’s an app for FB, and most people hate it because it sucks.
Have you ever viewed a non-responsive web site on your smartphone? Did you notice that mobile browsers compensate for the physically small screen size? I find all web sites to be totally readable on my phone. And actually, I hate it when I get a dumbed down, content-sparse responsive site loaded. Has no one ever heard of the pinch-to-zoom feature? Does anybody really expect a web site to look good on a tiny screen?
I don’t. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Real people don’t do real work on tiny screens. It’s simply not practical. Microsoft has finally realized this. Of course, Microsoft is still clinging to their “The Grid as a Start Menu” nonsense, which is still so idiotic that I’m actually embarrassed for them. Thousands of employees, billions of dollars, and that’s the most creative thing they can come up with?! I’m speechless (and that is rare)…
And then, there is the fact that responsive web sites have “boiled down” content. Have you noticed that mainstream news sites have hardly any text on their pages any more? Most mainstream news sites don’t even have many links on their landing pages – it’s all about a few images, a few videos, a few links to the stories they want you to read, and very little text.
It’s what I call Fast Food Content.
Well, I think you get the idea at this point. So, let me just make my prediction: Responsive web sites and the Grid layout are going the way of the dinosaur in most cases, and it’ll happen way sooner than you think. Like it or not, it’s simply good common sense.
That doesn’t mean I think you shouldn’t do anything at all for your mobile viewers, but it does mean that mobile is not the revolution everyone says it is. It’s a slow evolution. Look (and think) before you leap.
Also, there are certain situations where a responsive design isn’t so bad, like if you’re trying to sell a product. But, as I see it, that’s kind of the core problem nowadays: Everything (even news) has been turned into a sales pitch. It’s no longer about conveying the information, but rather about selling you something.
And that’s just lame.