By Cody Arsenault
Published on March 16, 2017
Responsive web design simply means making websites that can adapt to the size of the visitor’s viewport. The goal is for content to render differently depending on the device or screen size so that visitors have an optimal experience no matter how they access a website. The primarily benefit of responsive web design is that sites load quickly without any distortions, so users don’t need to manually resize anything to view content.
Take this KeyCDN blog site for example. The layout changes based on the dimensions of the screen while maintaining a consistently responsive presentation:
The concept has existed for decades, but developers began truly recognizing the benefits of responsive web design during the mid-2000s as more consumers started using mobile devices. As designers struggled to make sure that their websites looked attractive on desktops, smartphones and tablets, they quickly discovered that flexible layouts were needed. Therefore, they created websites that “responded” to users’ devices.
Today, more users access the web with mobile devices than with traditional laptops or desktops, so the field continues to evolve.
Companies with websites that don’t cater to mobile users are going extinct. To reach a wider audience of potential customers, businesses must embrace the benefits of responsive web design. Similarly, it is a concept that all working developers must understand.
A brief history of responsive web design
The first website designed to adapt its layout based on the width of the browser viewport was Audi.com, which launched in 2001. Terms like “fluid,” “flexible,” “liquid,” and “elastic” were used interchangeably to describe the same concept until developer Ethan Marcotte coined the phrase “responsive web design” in a 2010 essay. Marcotte wrote a book on the subject in 2011 simply titled “Responsive Web Design.”
The principles behind the benefits of responsive web design
There are a few key principles that are at the core of how responsive web design works. Below we’ll discuss 3 of the main components that make responsive web design possible.
Fluid grids are grid systems that scale based on the user’s screen as opposed to fixed-width layouts that always appear the same. While the term is sometimes used synonymously with “liquid layouts,” fluid grids ensure that all elements resize in relation to one another.
To calculate the appropriate proportions, simply divide the width of each element by the total width of the page. This can be achieved by taking measurements from a high fidelity mockup created in a pixel based image editor. Resist the temptation to round values, or else your layout will display inaccurate proportions.
Fluid grids only accomplish so much. As browsers have gotten narrower, new challenges have arisen, which is why we need media queries. Most modern browsers support CSS3 media queries, which enable websites to collect data from individual visitors and conditionally apply CSS styles. The min-width media feature allows designers to implement specific CSS styles once the browser window falls below a specified width. Take the following example:
The media query above tells the browser not to show the foobar class whenever the viewport is anything less than 1100px.
Perhaps the greatest challenge to responsive web design is resizing images. An easy option is to use CSS’s max-width property, which ensures that images load in their original size unless the viewport is narrower than the image’s width.
With a maximum width set to 100 percent of the viewing area, images will shrink proportionally as the screen or browser becomes narrower. Rather than declaring a height and width within the code, you can simply enable the browser to automatically resize images as directed by CSS. Be warned that some older Windows browsers have trouble rendering properly when images are resized.
In addition to image resolution, you must also keep load times in mind while sizing images. Larger images intended to be viewed on monitors can significantly slow down mobile devices as they resize. That’s why it’s important to take advantage of responsive image attributes such as srcset and sizes.
The top ten benefits of responsive web design
Responsive web design benefits designers, developers, businesses and, most importantly, users in the following ways:
1. More mobile traffic
According to a report from SimilarWeb, more than half of traffic to top websites in the U.S. came from mobile devices in 2015. Therefore, it’s increasingly important for companies to have websites that render properly on smaller screens so that users don’t encounter distorted images or experience a sub-optimal site layout. While some businesses still choose to have a separate version of their website for mobile users, responsive design is becoming the norm because it offers greater versatility at lower development costs.
2. Faster mobile development at lower costs
Making one responsive website takes considerably less time than making a stand-alone mobile application in addition to a standard desktop website. Since time is money, responsive design naturally costs less than the alternative. Even if the initial investment of a responsively designed website does end up comes out to being more expensive than creating two separate websites, you’ll end up saving in the long run due to maintenance costs, special configuration costs, etc of a website that uses two separate versions.
3. Lower maintenance needs
Maintaining a separate mobile site requires additional testing and support. In contrast, the process of responsive design uses standardized testing methodologies to ensure optimal layout on every screen. Having separate desktop and mobile sites also necessitates two content strategies, two administrative interfaces and potentially two design teams. Responsive design’s “one size fits all” approach means less headache for developers, business owners, and consumers. Spending less time on maintenance also frees up time to focus on more important things like marketing and content creation.
4. Faster pages
Mobile users in particular have short attention spans. Studies show that mobile visitors tend to abandon web pages that take longer than three seconds to finish loading. If a site isn’t optimized for smartphones and tablets, it will also take more time to navigate, which can frustrate customers to a point of no return. Ensuring that your responsive website uses modern performance techniques such as caching and responsive image display will help improve your web page loading speed.
5. Lower bounce rates
A responsive and optimized mobile site provides a much better user experience for the visitor. Therefore, it is much more likely that they’ll stick around for a longer period of time and explore different areas of your site. Alternatively, if your site isn’t responsive, it is much harder to keep the visitor engaged and therefore more likely that they’ll bounce.
6. Higher conversion rates
Lowering your bounce rate is only half of the battle. Creating a consistent user experience across all devices is key to converting new customers. When users are deciding whether or not to subscribe to a service, they don’t want to be redirected to device-specific websites because the process often takes longer. Having a single secure website that looks professional on all platforms makes users less likely to get frustrated or turn to a competitor.
7. Easier analytics reporting
Knowing where traffic is coming from and how users interact with your website is necessary to make informed improvements. Managing multiple versions of a website requires developers to track users’ journeys through multiple conversion paths, funnels, and redirects. Having a single responsive site greatly simplifies the monitoring process. Google Analytics and similar tools now cater to responsive websites by condensing tracking and analytics into a single report so that you can see how your content is performing on different devices.
8. Improved SEO
Responsive web design is becoming as important to search engine optimization as quality content. Stronger backlinks and better bounce rates translate into higher search rankings, but there is an extra SEO benefit for mobile optimized sites.
Starting April 21, 2015, Google Search will be expanding its use of mobile-friendliness as a ranking signal.
Having a single responsive website rather than separate desktop and mobile versions avoids the issue of duplicate content, which can negatively impact your search ranking.
9. Improved online browsing experience
First impressions are everything, so whether someone is visiting a website for the first time from their desktop or their smartphone, you want them to have a consistently positive experience. If visitors must do a lot of zooming, shrinking and pinching their screens during their first visit, they’re likely to give up and try another website.
10. Improved offline browsing experience
Now that many smartphones and tablets are HTML5 enabled, responsive web design benefits users by making it easier to continue viewing content within HTML5 web applications without an internet connection. Learn more about HTML5 Application Cache.
Tips for realizing the benefits of responsive web design
1. Prioritize “extreme” viewport sizes
When deciding which devices to consider for technical constraints, catering to the smallest and largest devices is an effective strategy to make sure your website looks presentable in all sizes. Review your analytics to determine which sizes to target. Focusing on the smallest viewport can help you decide which elements are the most important to the overall design while focusing on the larger viewport ensures readability as text columns grow wider. You also must consider different input methods; your site should be easily navigable by scrolling or by swiping.
These days, many modern frontend frameworks automatically take care of the viewport resizing for you so you don’t need to worry too much about defining these values in most cases.
2. Model what happens between breakpoints
You can’t realistically specify what your application should look like on every screen. In fact, a lot of visitors will see layouts that are between your targeted sizes. Designers must think about what happens between breakpoints to prevent elements from sizing down or columns from collapsing inappropriately. It may help to make sketches or even wireframes to model how web pages could look in the in-between stages.
3. Embrace feedback
While many designers are protective over their work, seeking opportunities for feedback always results in a better product. Separation of duties is important, but developers should be invited to product meetings, brainstorming sessions and usability tests. Team members are likely to have experience in multiple areas, so tap into that collective knowledge.
The future benefits of responsive web design
As the number of devices on the market continues to grow exponentially, the study of responsive design will only become more complex. While it’s easy to assume that the benefits of responsive web design have all been hammered out, we are probably still in the field’s infancy. People are now accessing the web through virtual reality headsets, and smartphones have enabled the creation of entirely new types of applications such as augmented reality games, so there will be no shortage of novel challenges going forward.
Future concerns for developers will include the reduction of maintenance costs, ongoing search engine optimization and improved conversion rates. Most recent advancements in responsive design have focused on accommodating smaller screens and this trend has no signs of slowing down. However, it’s also important to not forget users using larger displays so that everyone has a similar user experience in the end.