Responsive or Device Experience? No, it’s about the Journey

2 minute read

Responsive Web Design

  • If you want layout adjustments across devices.
  • You can live without complete optimization for specific devices.
  • You don’t have access to server-side solutions.
  • You really don’t trust device detection.

Device Experience

  • You want maximum optimization for each type of device.
  • And the ability to serve completely different user experience & features to each class of device.
  • You’re comfortable with device detection.

— LukeW (2012) Which One: Responsive Design, Device Experiences, or RESS?

LukeW takes a completely technical perspective: devices, optimization, server-side, detection. It’s true, it’s important, but in the end, is it really what’s that choice should be about?

What was not implicitly said in Luke’s article (and I think bears discussion) is that choosing responsiveness, as a characteristic shouldn’t necessarily define the wider implementation approach. Device Experiences (i.e. standalone sites, aimed at a group of devices) can also be responsive, providing the flexibility to support a much wider range of devices.
— Stephanie Rieger (2012) Responsiveness is a characteristic

We’re getting there. Her addition is as valuable as LukeW starting point, but unfortunately it’s still missing the point in my opinion, the most important, critical and difficult decision. She has the answer between the lines, but she still talks about devices.

The user journey is the most important decision, not the technology. The discussion about technology, devices, optimization, etc, comes after you do your research and you verify if your users want to do exactly the same things in exactly the same way when at the laptop, when on the couch with a tablet and when around walking with a smartphone.

That’s the first decision.
The user journey.

And then, the two approaches might well converge. It’s not so strange as Stephanie was saying that you develop a mobile/tablet interface and you make it responsive, while having a completely different one on the desktop.

Once you start thinking about the journey, you see also clearly that when you say “No” in the decision tree above you might as well decide to go native instead of providing a website with device experience. It might be a wiser business decision.

The examples can be from the more extreme to the more obvious. If you are making a photo service, the focus of the device will be all around taking the photo and editing it, while the web counterpart on desktop and tablet might be focused on the fruition of beautiful galleries. It optimizes the flows, it reduces costs and creates better experiences.

Instead a news website probably will fit better being responsive since the objective and journey is very similar both on desktop and mobile: getting the news.

In a recent project I worked on the mobile experience was more focused around reporting and notifications, and the desktop about collaboration and interaction. It’s clear what was our choice there: a desktop website focused on facilitating the discussion and the interaction between people while the mobile website was focused around giving you at a glance the single update you wanted and the person to contact for that. It wasn’t possible to be built as responsive: not only the pages were different, but also the flows and the actions were different.

So, step back from the technical details at first, make the right decisions based on real user needs and activities, and then you can dig into all the technicalities you want.