Is A Dedicated Mobile Design Ever Appropriate?

A few weeks ago I offered some thoughts about why responsive design is always appropriate. Jon Michael Christensen followed up on my post and offered some interesting thoughts of his own. I’d like to continue the conversation.

First I want to clarify something about my post in regards to the word necessary and then ask and answer the question of whether or not a dedicated device design is ever appropriate. I’ll close with some thoughts about where I see responsive design heading.

The word 'Dedicated' carved into the stone wall of a building

Dedicated Designs Aren’t Necessary

John generally agreed with what I said, but something about my post didn’t sit well with him. I’ll let John explain with a couple of quotes from his post.

if we are really doing our job designing responsively in a responsible way, we really shouldn’t need any dedicated solution for any platform.

a dedicated solution seems somewhat redundant and unnecessary. You already have something that should work on everything.

The list of things I think necessary includes very few items. Oxygen, food and water, and shelter from the elements. That’s the list. If we’re talking about survival of the species we can add procreation.

I hope my previous post didn’t imply that I think a dedicated design is ever necessary. I don’t think that. Since moving to responsive design, I’ve yet to design a dedicated version for any device. A responsive design has proved to be enough for my needs and the needs of my clients. However, I do leave open the possibility that at times a dedicated device design may be worthwhile.

Is a Dedicated Design Ever Appropriate?

I’ve said on a number of occasions that the move to responsive design is mainly a change in the way we think about designing websites. It’s part of a larger philosophy of adaptive design. We’re still working our way through both and trying to solve problems new to this new way of thinking.

In time we’ll have more ability to design systems that can better sense their environment and act on what they sense.

Some of the technical solutions we’d like aren’t in place yet and so we fall back on older solutions that may or may not be necessary, but do work.

Responsive design is something of a one size fits all solution. It means coding for all what might be useful only for some. Much of the time this isn’t a problem. Sometimes it can be.

Take the case of images. The large images we include in a design meant for a wide screen monitor are often too much for a small screen. We could reduce the dimensions of the image programmatically while maintaining its file size or we can provide images of different dimensions and decide which is best to display.

It’s much easier to describe the solution than to implement it. We don’t have great ways at the moment to ensure only the image we want to use is downloaded. For the most part we’re downloading more image than we need, which can potentially lead to a significant performance hit.

Here’s one developer explaining why his company went with a dedicated mobile site for this very reason. It’s an understandable explanation for choosing a dedicated design, though it misses the point that there are more than 2 types of devices. Better would have been a responsive design and then one optimized for a phone.

A dedicated site can be appropriate when the responsive design isn’t optimized as well as you’d like for a particular device or circumstance. Responsive designs should work across all, but that doesn’t mean they’re optimized for all.

It’s Ok to be Different

John closed his post with the following thought.

I know if I were a user and my buddy and I visited the same site on two different platforms and got two differing experiences, whoever got the short end of that stick wouldn’t be a happy camper. It certainly wouldn’t endear me to the company knowing that I wasn’t as important to get some extra content or feature.”

I wonder how we define differing experiences. Imagine the exact same design appeared on a desktop and a phone. It would still lead to different experiences, simply because of the way we interact with the site through different devices. I realize John is talking about a bigger picture kind of experience here, but what do we consider acceptable difference.

I’m sure John would agree that we don’t need to provide identical experiences on every device, but rather we want to provide the same level of experience across all devices. A certain amount of difference is inevitable, but we don’t want to shortchange some visitors because of their device.

The experience is going to be different no matter what we do. Our goal is to minimize the difference in quality between those different experiences. We want to make it clear that a visitor has found the right site and can do everything they want to do, no matter how they access it.

We can do that through either a responsive design or a dedicated device design. A dedicated version of a site doesn’t mean a completely different experience. If anything when people decide on a dedicated design it’s because they want to remove performance barriers to providing the same level of experience.

Adaptive Content and Responsive Design

If we can look ahead a little bit, I think where we’re going with responsive design and where we’re going with adaptive content will come together better.

In time we’ll have more ability to design systems that can better sense their environment and act on what they sense. Ideally we’ll be able to differentiate a person checking something on a site while running to catch a bus and another sitting comfortably on their couch surfing on a small tablet while watching the news on tv.

Our systems will have all sorts of content in various forms and we’ll use what we sense to serve the best possible combination of content to different devices and contexts. Perhaps knowing person A is in a rush, we’ll be able to have our site interact through voice alone.

We’ll also have technology in place to refrain from serving code and media that won’t be necessary under the sensed conditions. If the device in question can’t handle gestures, we won’t serve that code. If the device has a small screen we’ll leave the large images on the server.

We aren’t there yet. The technology hasn’t caught up to the idea. We’re moving in that direction, but it’ll take some time to reach our destination.


John makes some really good points in his follow up to my article and I admit that I may not have expressed myself as well as I could have. If you haven’t yet, do give his post a read. Part of my thinking in my previous post was to express things in a way to help convince the unconvinced and part was to leave open possibilities I haven’t encountered, but accept as possible.

Responsive is a one size fits all solution. It works well and because so much already fits under that “all” label, a responsive design should be in place to catch as much of that “all” as possible. However, you might want to optimize for a subgroup of “all” and you may choose a dedicated design to do that.

Long term I see us designing and developing larger systems that have greater abilities to sense their environment and choose to present an optimized version of itself based on what it senses.

At the moment we’re not there technically. Our best solution right now is to start with the responsive design as the minimum viable solution for all and then progressively enhance that minimum for different devices and contexts if we feel it’s appropriate.

Sometimes it might make sense to present an optimized version as a dedicated design. Most sites will never need to go dedicated. The responsive solution will be optimized enough. When it isn’t a dedicated design can be added as another layer on top of the responsive layer.

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  1. I think mobile specific sites can be good as long as they don’t sacrifice content or impact. I know a lot of people that prefer to have desktop website experience in their hand.

    With mobile phone screens being so high resolution now, there is less need for specific versions of that page for mobile.

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