Is Responsive Web Design Right for Retailers? A Tech Perspective.

by / Thursday, 16 May 2013 / Published in Experience Design, Interaction Design, Strategy, Usability, User Experience
Responsive Web Design (RWD). The digital industry is buzzing about it. Our clients are asking whether to invest in it. And Fluid is at the forefront of it.

In order to get you answers I sat down with Steve Reichgut, Fluid’s Director of Engineering. He is a respected industry leader in RWD. Steve and his team live and breathe cutting-edge technology. They’re smart about when to, and when not to, apply it.

My top three take-aways:

1. This isn’t just about technology: Responsive Web Design with a “Big R” is about ensuring that the user experience responds effectively on multiple devices in multiple contexts. This broader concept can be implemented in many different ways.

2. RWD is not an all or nothing decision: The question ‘Should I use Responsive Web Design or not?’ is probably the wrong question to be asking.

3. Thinking through support for RWD is essential: Content updating challenges that currently exist between marketing and tech teams get amplified with RWD. Trade-offs between cutting-edge and desire for control are inevitable.

Now on to the interview…

[Amy] What is Responsive Web Design?

[Steve] In it’s purest definition, the “Big R” RWD, is about ensuring that what the user is experiencing responds effectively on the device they are using in whatever context they are in. This can be achieved in a lot of different ways.

RWD though is usually used as a technical term. It is literally using three things to build a responsive experience: a grid system, media queries to determine viewport size and flexible images that size appropriately.

[Amy] What’s the best thing about RWD?

[Steve] The best thing is the whole idea that the user gets an optimal experience no matter where they are coming from. RWD gives the user a great, seamless experience.

[Amy] What’s the biggest challenge?

[Steve] Determining how it’s going to be supported operationally. RWD doesn’t create new problems, it amplifies the ones you already have. Who’s going to make changes? And who’s going to make sure the changes render right on all devices?

The other challenge is that people are combining the “Big R” definition of RWD with a specific technical solution. So they end up asking “Do I do RWD or not?”

[Amy] Is “Do I do RWD or not?” the wrong question to be asking?

[Steve] I think so. RWD is often being defined as a single code base for all devices with set break points. Although this may be a great solution for a lot of situations, there are many other ways to achieve responsive experiences for consumers.

[Amy] What should retailers and brands be asking?

[Steve] I think it’s ‘What’s the right approach to achieve a great responsive experience?’ The question, and solution, needs to be tied to the context of what people are doing. How different is the experience people need to have between devices? Do they have completely different objectives and mindsets per device? Or does it make sense to mostly show the same stuff across all devices?

Home Shopping Network and People Magazine are great examples. Due to the nature of their customer behavior and business needs, they decided to use responsive techniques for mobile and tablet and not for desktop. Their responsive solution involves two (or more) code bases right now.

It’s important to go to the customer mindset first. Then the business need. Then the technology.

Retailers should also be asking: Am I ready to support it?

[Amy] Support it in what ways?

[Steve] Figuring out operationally how RWD will be maintained is critical. One technology team managing one code base is by far the fastest way to support a full range of devices. But the needs of an organization may make that impractical. The other option is to have business users update the site. In that case though, it puts a lot more responsibility and stress on your content management system to enable updates to happen easily and reliably.

[Amy] What’s the biggest misperception about RWD?

[Steve] That it’s all or nothing. You either do it or you don’t. It’s not a single solution. It ideally is about responsive techniques, not RWD.

Usage of the term RWD is analogous to usage of the term Cloud Computing several years ago. At the outset people spoke of it as one entity – now there are lots of services and vendors addressing different elements of it – IaaS, PaaS, SaaS, etc. RWD needs to get to that point too.

[Amy] Who should choose RWD?

[Steve] It’s best and easiest for sites that skew content heavy, don’t house a lot of complex interactions and have few 3rd party widgets. Many 3rd party widgets are not responsive compatible.

It’s less about who and when and more about which technique should I use. Ideally all digital experiences should be responsive. It’s just a question of which responsive techniques should be applied.

[Amy] Talk about RWD within digital commerce. Your description of who should choose it seems to count many ecommerce experiences out.

[Steve] It’s not that ecommerce systems shouldn’t do it, it’s that many of them are not incredibly well suited for RWD today. Content management systems aren’t prepared for the demands of RWD. There are lots of 3rd party integrations. Retailers don’t always have the flexible photography assets – or the process in place to produce them. This though is beginning to change.

[Amy] Who should say no to RWD? Should retailers say no?

[Steve] In the end it’s something you’re going to want to do in some form. Consumers are shifting in higher percentages to mobile and tablets and it is happening quickly. So are sales. Retailers need to get there. This will more likely be an evolution than a hard cut over. Many retailers can’t – or shouldn’t – do it all in one fell swoop. It will likely be an agile approach – certain pieces implemented with knowledge and experience gained added over time.

[Amy] We’ve had clients ask what RWD means for mobile apps. What do you think?

[Steve] At the end of the day clients really want a great mobile experience for their customers. The question then becomes what does this mean? I don’t think a responsive site trumps a mobile app or vice versa. They are complementary, not competing, channels. Each needs a reason for being. An app for the sake of having an app isn’t going to work. It needs to be justified. Same holds true for RWD.

A killer experience in mobile is the place to start. How it gets executed – via RWD, app or something else – is contingent on its purpose, its target audience, the frequency of use and other factors.

[Amy] Will we still be talking about RWD next year? Is it here to stay?

[Steve] The “Big R” absolutely is here to stay. I hope RWD starts to get recognized as more than a single solution. Pure RWD is one of many arrows in your quiver. I think it will move – like Cloud Computing did – towards encompassing a variety of solutions. Ideally it becomes a best practice for reasons that put the consumer at the center of experiences. That’s what we’re aiming for here at Fluid.

Thank you to Steve. A webinar Steve led on RWD after his session @ can be downloaded here.

Keep the questions coming,