The problem with responsive web design: a circus act


I haven’t decided if I’m going to write more on the pitfalls of responsive design syndrome as I call it, but this comment on a post, Clown Car Technique: Solving Adaptive Images In Responsive Web Design, at Smashing Magazine sure sums my sentiment at present:

The whole responsive design movement has been about designers/developers wanting to show off, making sites that adapt to every size imaginable – and fluidly in real-time. The KISS prinicple seems to have been long forgotten in the rush to build all websites fluidly, on-the-fly responsive.

But this has led to over-complicated solutions for problems that don’t exist. And a higher cost for web development.

We need to stop trying to impress users. They don’t even notice half the cool stuf we do.

We have made responsive design a rod for our own back by setting its ideals unrealistically high.

We need to get back to the K.I.S.S principle.

Everything with this comment is right. The title of the article is hilarious, in that it both mocks (unintentionally?) the current state of hysteria over image downloading, while aptly naming a solution after the circus-like approach that has to be used, at this point. Maybe these issues will get ironed out, but that is beside the point. The point is that most sites don’t need to be responsive. Everyone with a cell phone three of four years old can already see and navigate any website in it’s desktop layout! Nobody was complaining. Pinch and zoom on a touch device already works perfectly. Responsive design flattens out rich desktop design to a linear scroll experience. Yuck, on the whole. Do desktop designs really translate effectively into linear stories? I really don’t think so, in general. Some do, but on the whole, most do not and never will.

While responsive design is a great solution in some cases, for some sites, of a certain content, of a certain demographic, it’s largely a solution in search of a problem. When the fad cools off, people will still opt for a desktop design by default, a distinct mobile site too perhaps, and responsive design will correctly occupy the specialized niches of websites for which it is supremely suited. Let’s give it a couple years :)

Please read the whole article: Clown Car Technique: Solving Adaptive Images In Responsive Web Design


  1. says

    Nicely said. I really like this point:

    “Responsive design flattens out rich desktop design to a linear scroll experience”

    I see too many sites now that have had to sacrifice taking full advantage of the device to accommodate RWD across devices.

    The best mobile websites I’ve seen are those written for the mobile device, not for all devices.

    MacRumors is a good example. You don’t get the mobile site unless you are on a mobile device. (You can access it on the desktop via a link). Resize your browser all you like, you won’t get the mobile version. You get a different styles.css depending on the device. Not a media query insight. And on each device it looks great. K.I.S.S.

  2. says

    Chris: nicely said back at you :)

    What makes me crazy is RWD diehards that just say “Well, then it’s a problem of implementation and not the technique itself.” It’s a little bit circular in logic, because they begin and end with a foregone conclusion, that RWD has no flaws, just flawed implementers. Then they admit “Well, RWD isn’t perfect but it’s the future.” You can’t argue with that — it’s just circular.

    I totally agree the best mobile sites right now are dedicated, period, as of today. From a design, maintenance, and performance point of view, there isn’t a contest.

    RWD reminds of those infomercials from the 80’s and 90’s for this super-all-in-one table saw drill press band saw pancake maker device called the Mark IV or something like that. Through a series of flips and flops, you could convert the device to like 10 other devices. It was a really cool device, no doubt. But it made sense for the guy with a small basement. There is no way it could compete with dedicated individual devices, especially if you are a guy with enough room in the basement for them. Why go the hard way?

    And other final point, which I may do a post on, is the myth of “many different devices” that will be visiting your site. I’m sorry, but 99% of all traffic is going to be desktop, iOS and Android, which all have pinch and zoom if needed, if there is no m dot site. I don’t care if my refrigerator wants to browse a site. I don’t care if the new Blackberry with a .0001% adoption rate wants to visit the site. If it works for desktop, iOS, and Android, then let them reach that benchmark. Size does NOT matter.

  3. says

    Yup. It’s all become about design for design’s sake. Just because we can doesn’t mean we should.

    Like the flat design movement, too! I love flat design, but if you believed what too many designer’s are preaching, you’d think it’s the nirvana of design. Of course, if it was, then the Minimalist art style would never have gone out of fashion.

    Back on topic, I design for size not device. And for three sizes only: 1024; and > 1024.

    This does mean at the borders of those numbers the design won’t be quite as nice, but should I be going the extra mile when that extra mile can be very costly in both time and money, and ultimately, not even appreciated by the end user.

    The customer (read user in this case) may always be right, but it doesn’t mean we have to provide a solution for every unique customer.

    Kinda reminds me of that Simpsons episode when Homer designed the perfect car. That’s what RWD feels like at the moment.

  4. says

    “Of course, if it was, then the Minimalist art style would never have gone out of fashion.”


    Reminds me of a limerick I wrote somewhere on this blog:

    There once was a trendy typesetter
    Who thought “less is more is more better”
    “I’ll sit here and scratch
    at my tiny soul patch,
    Until my design is one letter.”

    The hysteria will die down. Remember when everything was “DHTML”? That’s gone, but using Javascript and HTML stuck around, but they are used as-needed, and packaged in usable libraries and technologies. There are no DHTML fanbois and posters and mugs.

    This is where the “bad implementer vs bad implementation” argument falls. Apple is king because implementation is rallied around implementer. The iPod would not have taken off if you had to upload 7 versions of your MP3: one for the car, one for the hi-fi, one for earbuds, etc..

    Although, now that I think about, a “DHTML” t-shirt would be retro cool.

  5. cobaco says

    @criss, regarding your macrumors example:

    > You get a different styles.css depending on the device. Not a media query insight.

    using different styles for different devices (with the same html) is the essense of Responsive web design.

    whether you manage that through media-queries or UA-based serverside selection is an implementation detail:
    – if media-queries aren’t flexible/precise enough then by all means use the UA-based serverside solution to send a different style.
    – that’s still responsive design though

  6. says

    RWD is just another of the “Gangnan Style” trends in user experience design that, like PSY, will soon be a fond — or not so fond memory.

    What the typical “Responsive” designed web/mobile web site lacks is a theoretical framework or design paradigm that guides/leads the design. We recommend that one follows the 7 principles of universal design — a well documented and well researched approach to making all things accessible to the largest number of people. See for more on that.

    What’s the next UX trend that will soon fade away? “Flat Design” While it may look cool, creating a tablet style interface and forcing your users to swipe across, and down in order to locate content is no more useful than the Flash intros of the 2000s — but at least those gave way to a ubiquitous “skip” button.

  7. says

    I agree with the Flat style. It’s now hitched to the failure of Windows 8. While maybe it’s a good thing skeuomorphism has been dialed back, going totally flat just doesn’t have any affordance. There is a legitimate need to keep subtle depth clues, etc, perhaps even key textures, in a modern UI to differentiate actionable items from non-actionable.

    I’ll be happy when RWD chills a little, and people realize there will never be an image solution that properly serves mobile and desktop without a server-side solution, which leads to a platform solution and not just a bunch of scripts and frameworks.

  8. K says

    I read that CCT article and was not impressed, very insightful points and arguments against it over there and here as well.

    The most salient point, which is frequently lost to the RWD clowns (forgive me) is how a huge percentage of visitors to many websites are robbed of a beautiful experience. An experience sacrificed in order to satisfy said clowns’ obsession for RWD. I do most of my browsing on a laptop and a desktop. I use my smartphone to navigate websites when necessary but never beyond that. I’m also not a text fiend. There are many, many, many people like me out there particularly as regards the former. Why should we get gypped? Let’s not pretend the desktop experience is not the richest experience.

    Lots of website owners do not opt for responsive websites. Most of them aren’t in a panic like the RWDers are. Let’s not pretend most websites absolutely need it. They don’t. Most have done just fine without it and many for 10+ years. It can also negatively impact bounce rates, that is making a site responsive. Several people have told me this, it made some users actually visit less.

    Website owners must know their audience through analytics and by asking; there’s no shame in asking. That is the smart and proactive thing to do. Know your audience, please them. RWD is only sometimes a necessity. Why give people headaches to produce it, more headaches to implement it and more headaches to remedy it if it’s not imperative?

  9. says

    Thanks K. I agree with your comments. RWD at this point is a mediocre universal experience. But the rush and panic about RWD is sure great for cashflow for the design firms that lead with RWD as their main income: redesigning sites that may or may not need a redesign. In 20 years from now, the majority of websites (not necessarily the most popular) will still not be responsive. At some point I suspect we’ll overcome the need for RWD with another technology and what’s old will be new and cutting edge again. :)

  10. says

    Another thought: at some point the “design for mobile first” mantra will chill out. Once smartphones displace feature phones, the “mobile revolution” will be past it’s peak adoption rate and will be as exciting as old fashioned TV, on an elemental level. Once it does, and screen and UI technology goes to the next level, whatever that is, I suspect that any form of media, RWD or not, will look and behave just great on these next gen devices.

  11. Kenjiro says

    One of the biggest problems with responsive webdesign is the lack of creativity. Take THEME FOREST for exemple where all themes looks much same, they’re all same style :)

    RESPONSIVE WEB DESIGN cost more but provide a very basic design style that becomes mediocre and repetitive. It takes more time to build a site, design styles are very limited restricted to the fluid style.
    It’s running slow, eats CPU and memory. The old Adobe Flash Design
    style was far, far superior with much more advantages and with more possibilities than the restrictive fluid style.

    Responsive Web Design – Is it really worth the effort ?
    Responsive Web Design – Does it really represent a progress in the design industry ? What is the middle way ?
    No, No We’re not stack in the past as long as that is not relevant for the present !

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