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

16 responses to “The problem with responsive web design: a circus act”

  1. Shannon Young

    Developer Troll Level:1000

  2. Chris Howard

    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.

  3. Chris Howard

    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. Chris Howard

    lol using less than symbols nuked my text! The 3 sizes where: less than 720; 720 to 1024, and greater than 1024

  5. Chris Howard

    lol. DHTML – I’d forgotten about its ugly head.

  6. cobaco

    @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

  7. The Usability People (@UsabilityPeople)

    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.

  8. K

    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. Kenjiro

    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 !

  10. Jonathan

    I am so glad to find that I am not the only one that feels this way.

    “Responsive design flattens out rich desktop design to a linear scroll experience. Yuck, on the whole.”

    This! I find “responsive” designs positively irritating on my smart phone! Endless scrolling for no good reason, difficult to find what you are looking for, it’s shit, quite frankly. Everyone is carrying a supercomputer around in their pocket and we’re serving up glorified WAP websites. I can’t even count how many times a day I have to change my mobile browser to “desktop” mode just to get a functional version of the website, but more often that not even that doesn’t work on responsive designs. Sometimes you need a responsive design, if your website is an “app” for instance, it makes sense. Most times you do not. By all mean, please make the desktop design readable on phones, increase font sizes, use larger navigational elements that was the norm in the past, but finger friendly doesn’t have to be “responsive”.

    In my opinion, responsive design is overrated at best, and very shortsighted at worst, especially as our phones get bigger and better and more “desktop” like all the time. But Google is pushing it big time, so I guess we’re stuck with it for now.

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