As your customers become increasingly mobile, you have to consider how your website looks on the screens of their mobile devices, from smartphones to tablets of varying sizes.

If you check your web analytics, you'll likely find between 10% and 20% of your site visits are coming from mobile devices at this point, and those numbers are only going to rise in the coming months and years. In fact, our latest report for one client shows just over 30% of visitors are on mobile devices, an increase of over 15% this year alone!

Building a separate mobile website is a time-tested option, and if it's designed right, it will accomplish what you need. But, it's also a significant investment in time and money.

Responsive design provides a potentially cost- and time-saving option that can offer your users a flexible mobile experience. But it has its own list of cons to consider as well.

What is responsive website design?

Ipad and iPhone Have you looked at your website on tablets and smartphones? Is the website usable?

Responsive website design refers to coding a website in such a way that the layout, images, typography and other features adjust according to the size of the device displaying the website. For example, a site viewed on a wide laptop screen may have an image to the left, text surrounding it, and a sidebar with ads or other elements to the right.

On a responsive site, that same site on a 4-inch screen may appear with the image centered on top, the text beneath, and a series of links from the sidebar beneath that. Additionally, the size of images may scale down to fit the device, but text remains large enough to be readable on the small screen of a smartphone.

What's the difference between responsive websites and mobile websites?

Put simply, mobile sites are designed specifically for the way users want and need to navigate around your site on their mobile device.

  • They are generally simplified, stripped down to just the functionality and content necessary to satisfy the mobile user.
  • Often, they don't include all of the content or pages that you'd expect to see on a "wired" device like a desktop computer.

A responsive design, on the other hand, offers every option your full site has to offer, in a format a mobile user can easily read and understand.

We've covered the differences between mobile and responsive websites in more detail before. It's important to understand, though, that your business goals and the way your target audience uses your site are the real determining factors when considering which is better for you.

What makes responsive design a good choice?

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The first – and possibly biggest – argument for responsive website design is cost, followed closely by ease.

  • If your designer only needs to design and support one website instead of two, you're going to spend less money in the long run, even if they charge a little more for starting with a responsive design.
  • It's going to be easier for you to update content on one site rather than two going forward.
  • Google has publicly said that it prefers responsive design. Of course, this doesn't mean that a website with a responsive design will rank higher, but it's something to consider.
  • Using a responsive design also provides a consistent experience across devices, so if your business model involves relying on repeat visits from your users, this could be a determining factor.

Why might responsive design not be the best choice?

If your analytics show a large number of visits coming from IE6, IE7 or IE8 (Internet Explorer) browsers, you will definitely want to consider a separate mobile website. These browsers do not support media queries, the technology that makes responsive design possible.

Also, if your website goals rely heavily on imagery or mapping to get your message across, a separate mobile site may be a better option because it can handle these far more quickly and efficiently than a responsive design that needs to scale and re-size everything on the fly.

Consider your customer's experience, too. Usability guru Jakob Nielsen says that it is "degrading to reuse content and design across diverging media forms" and "superior UX (user experience) requires tight platform integration."

In other words, your full website – with all its bells and whistles – may be fantastic on a laptop, but may very well turn off your customers when they try to wade through it on their mobile phones. Often, the mobile user has a very different goal than the PC user, and the speed with which you accomplish their goal will determine how successful you are.

How do you decide?

It's a tough decision to make. The best way to decide whether you should go with responsive website design or a separate mobile site is to contact a web design consulting professional and review your options thoroughly.

That way, you get the site your target audience wants and needs without wasting time and money.