Responsive or Device Detection? Mobile Development at Breaking Development Orlando 2013

A little over than a week ago, as the dotMobi’s CTO I attended Breaking Development Orlando, one of the most important conferences on emerging techniques for web development and design for mobile devices. Some thoughts:

Responsive Web Design

As expected, Responsive Web Design (RWD) was much discussed as a solution for multi-device web publishing to high-end devices, despite its issues. However, the debate was a bit more nuanced than it was last year. There was quite widespread acknowledgement of its problems (page weight, performance, one size fits all etc.) but most people were of the opinion that these problems will get fixed in time. The problem of page size is widely accepted as a core problem with RWD, and there won't be a good solution any time soon. As one speaker at the conference said, "Responsive Web Design is like packing for a trip when you don't know what the weather will be like—you have to pack everything".

One of the people with whom I spoke, mentioned that one company he works with has a requirement to promote different products to mobile users vs. desktop users because people have different propensity to buy things in each case: this is a case that RWD can't solve right now.

After talking to quite a few people, it feels that there are two general classes of web sites emerging. On one hand, sites with global audiences have been mobile-friendly for many years now. They use device detection, recognize the need for it, and probably will do for the foreseeable future. The other class of sites are recently mobile-friendly and don't have global audiences: Responsive Web Design is becoming a default solution for these sites.

Given that the majority of sites are not at the level of Google, Walmart etc., the Responsive Web Design conversation tends to dominate the discussion.

Site Performance

Related to the Responsive Web Design images problem, there is also widespread acceptance that sites are getting too heavy. Nobody disputed this and there is also a general consensus amongst the thought leaders that optimising for speed is more important than optimising for appearance. Given a choice users will pick speed over appearance every time.

Mobile Context

The idea of a different mobile context has been challenged quite a bit over the last year or so. It is generally a mistake to make assumptions based on the fact that a user is using a mobile device because study after study has shown that people will do everything and anything on their mobile devices, and oftentimes they're not in fact on the move.

That said, it would be an even bigger mistake to dismiss this idea entirely. Content parity doesn’t preclude optimization. While nobody thinks that it makes sense to restrict content available to mobile devices it may make sense to prioritize or surface things differently. A separate mobile site may not make sense but a different mobile view may do — think google.com, facebook.com etc.

Related to this, the "cross screen" experience was talked about also: people expect to be able to do anything on anything, so often an experience that was started on one device will be completed on another.

Wrap Up

If anything was clear from BDConf in Orlando it was a renewed sense that publishing web content to multiple devices remains very complex, despite all of the advances in both the thinking and the toolset. As an industry we now have quite a few tools in our toolbox. The most important thing is to make the best use of them, as suits the requirements. Depending on your needs this may mean RWD, or server-side detection, or both (RESS). The end user experience must trump technical decisions.