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Responsive web design vs mobile web development: advantages and challenges. HTML5’s momentum and Best tools for responsive web design

Posted on: June 17, 2013

Responsive web design isn’t the future, it’s the present

In our humble opinion it’s late to debate whether responsive web design is the future because it’s already the present of everybody’s business represented online. Consumer/client behavior has been changing. According to statistics and analysts’ predictions, for instance, for the first time since 2001, PC sales are projected to be lower than they were in 2012; smartphone sales will double PC sales in 2014; tablet sales are expected to exceed 100 million this year and may top notebooks next year. So the shift to mobile is happening at an extraordinary speed, and tablets and smartphones are becoming extremely popular for business and pleasure matters. This means people view your content on thousands of oddly shaped and different sized screens. What’s more, according to Google research, mobile users “expect their mobile experience to be as good as their desktop experience” – this expectation poses a thorny challenge for both, business stakeholders and web designers and developers.

So this is no longer about “How do I make my website available to a smartphone or tablet?” – it’s “How do I make my business available in smartphone and tablet context?”. For some business it’s not important – it’s literally critical, for example: according to the Pew Research Center, 60% of tablet users prefer reading news on the mobile web than via an app; the same percentage is quite common for e-commerce sites according to Google Analytics and that’s why RWD has been listed in E-commerce marketing checklist for 2013. If you wish to identify the percentage of your audience that use mobile devices use the Google Analytics Mobile Overview report feature: if mobile users are more than 5% of your total audience you should consider catering for them too.

In general, there are three main approaches to providing information and interaction to mobile/tablet device users : responsive (and adaptive) web design, mobilized websites, and mobile apps. It’s important to understand that these are different marketing channels and their value proposition is very different. A mobile web site may do something very different from a mobile app – simply said, “if your goal is just to display and show content beautifully create a responsive or mobilized website; if your goal is to show productivity tools, build an app”. Which option is the best for your business will depend on your use case, your users’ habits and your budget.

Responsive web design vs mobile web development: advantages and challenges

To talk about advantages of responsive web design, let’s start from its definition. RWD is a front-end development approach aimed at crafting device agnostic sites. It uses “media queries” to figure out what resolution of device it’s being served on. Flexible images and fluid grids then size correctly to fit the screen. So responsive design provides easy reading and navigation with a minimum of resizing, panning, and scrolling, and eliminates the need for separate sites for different devices. Adaptive web design is either a subset of responsive design, or a related approach. “Responsive design will show more stuff or less, optimized for a mobile layout, but is likely to still provide access to the full desktop-view’s content. Adaptive design, by contrast, might show very different content, and also present a different UI, reflecting touchscreen’s tap/swipe/scroll versus desktop’s keyboard/mouse interaction.” In either case, responsive (and adaptive) web design will be based on the same code as a desktop site, and will locate on the same URL.

– In the definition above a couple of advantages of RWD are pointed out. Indeed, it improves user web browsing experience since a website adapts to the browser or device compatibility automatically and makes the content look good. For customers it shows that your business is receptive to changing technology and understanding of consumers’ needs.

– From business perspective, “one website – multiple devices” concept means that it’s easy to manage and focus on developing good content for your website. The same applies to analytics and strategy development and deployment since there is only one set of analytics to examine and a single strategy to develop and deploy. From maintenance standpoint, the technique is great too as one update affects all of your platforms.

– Additionally, responsive websites are easier for consumers to find than traditional or mobile web sites because they come up higher in search engines’ rankings. “In fact, Google recommends responsive web design because having a single URL for desktop and mobile sites makes it easier for Google to discover content and for Google’s algorithms to assign indexing properties to content.”

– One more advantage from the future perspective, as Resnick predicts, is: “As the internet transforms further into a platform of services and user interfaces that tie those services together, leveraging RWD technology in the future will allow companies to integrate a plethora of back-end services, such as Facebook, Twitter,, and Amazon Web Services, and then present the integrated data back out the front-end iad layer on a responsive design so the application looks great on all devices without custom coding needed for each device or screen size. No longer are expensive back-end solutions needed to integrate legacy systems with business partners.”

Actually responsive web design is quite immature so it faces many challenges too.

– Even though we might view a responsive website on a smaller screen and it displays less visible content or smaller-sized images, this does not mean that the site will load faster. The thing is that from one side responsive websites are not much smaller in download size when viewed on smaller devices or screen resolutions compared to when being viewed on a desktop browser jacked into a broadband internet service provider, on the other hand mobile internet speeds still lag much behind broadband internet ones. Thus responsive web sites need advanced optimization, such as serving smaller images and conditionally loading scripts, and much more. An alternative may be found in dedicated mobile web development solutions since they specifically address mobile devices.

– The related issue concerns complexity. Responsive web designs are inherently complex because they are trying to support many viewing experiences without necessarily optimizing the experience for one particular device (or genre of devices). Mobile browsers will have to deal with a big HTML file, and the site would need to carefully avoid running specific scripts, loading certain CSS and download large images. Perfect implementation is possible, still avoiding over-resourcing requires scripts or code and therefore additional complexity. Typical “m dot” site wins in this case and is simple. It usually has a small amount of HTML, limited scripts, CSS, and images (if at all) as it is built specifically for its intended small-screen, touchscreen mobile devices viewing experience.

– As for UI and UX, responsive websites have limitations here. Not only in screen size, they are also limited for utilizing or recognizing key mobile features such as user location, connectivity, device limitations, software potential, and user needs. Mobilized sites and mobile apps will provide broader opportunities and advantages here.

Information architecture can be an issue. It needs to be carefully considered and should be hierarchically structured before the design implementation.

Advertising is an issue. Ads will have to shift with the sites, something that will wreak havoc with advertisers who want guaranteed placements on sites.

So, which approach will or do you use to present your business online?

HTML5’s momentum and Best tools for responsive web design

Responsive web design is not a specific technology but a whole design approach. However, responsive design is enabled primarily by CSS3 and JavaScript, which fall under the banner of HTML5. HTML5 is really maturing in terms of its functionality and, more importantly, its speed. So now HTML5 is the backbone of the new and interactive features of responsive web design.

To achieve a smooth flow from a large screen to a small one it takes a lot of patience and perseverance. To reach a seamless result there are a number of tools that help you with it. Below you will find a list of best responsive design tools broadly recommended in the web as well as by Altabel’s dev team:

1. Gridset
A tool that helps you design, prototype and build any type of grid layout required – columnar grids, asymmetrical, fixed, fluid or responsive grids. It even lets you create a library of your own grids, with a variety of presets available. It will allow you to build responsive prototypes (without all the calculations) very quickly and easily, providing all the measurements and tools to integrate with your existing markup.
Alternatives: Frameless, Tiny Fluid Grid, Gridpak, SimpleGrid, Responsify,, Golden Grid System and Photoshop Grid for Responsive Design.

2. Bootstrap
An intuitive and powerful front-end framework from Twitter to start a responsive website fast and easy. It addresses the most popular user interface components and interactions, uses a 12-column responsive grid system with simple and flexible HTML, CSS, and Javascript and features dozens of components, styles and JavaScript plug-ins, with basic global display, typography and link styles all set. It also gives the option of customizing components of your website for instance by using the Customizer .
Alternatives: Skeleton, Foundation, Base, InuitCSS, LESS Framework, Gridless, 320 and Upand Gumby.

3. Wirefy
Clients wish to see how wireframes will adapt to different device sizes. Static wireframes aren’t particularly useful to show a client how responsive your design is, or what functionality is being suggested. But rapid prototyping by building flexible wireframes may. Wirefy is a collection of functional responsive HTML snippets and templates that scale as the browser is resized (working across multiple devices). It builds on tools such as the Frameless grid system and Bootstrap, and uses CSS media queries that adapt to different device resolutions. Wirefy focuses on key elements such as typography, tables, images, slideshow, forms, tab panel, paginator, menu, etc., focusing on the users.
Alternatives: Froont, Interactive Style Tiles, Responsive Sketch Sheets, Responsive Wireframe Template, Interface Sketch Templates, Responsive Device Diagrams, Wirify.

4. FlevNav
Navigation strategy is a really critical component of any responsive website design. FlexNav is a jQuery plugin that takes a device-agnostic approach to complex site navigation. It is a mobile-first concept using media queries and JavaScript to create a menu with drop downs. It features multiple nested sub-menus, with support for em units and tap targets to reveal sub-menus for touchscreens.
Alternatives: TinyNav.js, Navigation Patterns for Responsive Design, MeanMenu, Responsive Solutions for Menu Navigation, jPanelMenu.

5. Adaptive Images
Previously, making your website images responsive was tricky and usually meant using a “hack-around”. Now several tools may simplify this task. Using a one htaccess file, one php file and a single line of JavaScript, Adaptive Images detects screen size of browsing devices, cashes and delivers device appropriate re-scaled versions of your web page’s embedded HTML images without any mark-up changes. Also it is entirely non-destructive, and works on existing websites and markups — without the need to edit anything. Adaptive Images works on the premise that you are already using the highest-resolution images on your site, and also offers a ton of customization options.
Alternatives:, jQuery Picture, ResponsiveImg, Retina.js and Retina Images.

6. FitText
As content scales according to a user’s viewport, the text will naturally wrap as the container is narrowed; and this often causes widows, orphans or your headlines to look rather ugly, and can even break the entire layout. FitText is a jQuery plugin specifically for headlines and big text. It auto-updates the font size according to the width of the element wrapping it, so you can achieve scalable headlines and a non-broken layout that can be caused by font-sizing issues. FitText works perfectly with Lettering.js or any CSS3 property thrown at it. There are options to fine-tune the text, including the ability to set min-max sizes and the level of scaling. Still FitText is only for headlines, and shouldn’t be used with paragraph text.
Alternatives: BigText, Lettering.js, Kerning.js, Kern.js, Type Butter and Slabtext.

7. Responsive Slides
This lightweight plugin allows you to create a responsive slider using elements inside a container. The images have to be the same size and jQuery 1.6 and up should be used. You can keep captions and other non-HTML elements inside the slides, while also using CSS3 transitions with JavaScript fallback. It works in all major desktop and mobile browsers, can support multiple slide shows, have settings for transition and timeout durations, automatic and manual fade, and have options for customization.
Alternatives: Flex Slider, Slides.js, PhotoSwipe, Supersized, Camera, RefineSlide, BlueberrySequence.js and Galleria.

8. Responsive Tables
Data tables in responsive design can be troublesome: you want it to not break responsive layouts, not hide content, let you see entire rows and columns, not be too small to read easily or zoomed in too far requiring scrolling. Here ZURB comes out – a simple JavaScript/CSS combination containing two key files: responsive-tables.js and responsive-tables.css. It works by taking the first column, which is often the unique key for a table, and “pinning” it to the left of the table, allowing you to scroll the other columns under it.
Alternatives: Responsive Data Tables, Stackable.js, Footable, Responsive Tables, Responsive Tables, Responsive SEO Friendly Data Tables.

9. Responsive Design Testing
Building a responsive website means constantly testing how it displays across mobile and tablet devices. You could resize the browser yourself, or use a browser extension or tools within your IDE; but there is an extremely simple tool that allows you to see how a page displays on different screen sizes, in a single view. With Matt Kersley’s RWD testing tool you just have to enter your website’s URL into the address bar to test a specific page in different widths and device sizes. Also you can share the results of the test with others by adding any URL to the end of the testing page address. One major benefit of this tool is that it can be self-hosted (available on GitHub) by downloading and installing it on your own site. You can then navigate through the frames that your website appears in, testing the entire site effortlessly.
Alternatives: Screen Queries, Screenfly, Responsivepx, Responsinator, Responsive, and Resize My Browser.

10. Respond.js
The problem with media queries in responsive web design is that they are a part of CSS3 specifications so they do not work with older browser versions such as IE8 and lower. Respond.js comes to the rescue for browsers that don’t support media queries directly, translating any media queries it finds into equivalent JavaScript.The script itself is incredibly small and lightweight. It works unobtrusively, and doesn’t rely on any other scripts or frameworks to run.
Alternatives: Modernizer, Adapt, Categorizr, CSS3 Media Queries and Enquire.js.

The tools above are ultra useful for any RWD project from the planning and designing phase right through to testing, and what’re your favorites?

Welcome to share your view points.

Helen Boyarchuk

Helen Boyarchuk
Skype ID: helen_boyarchuk
Business Development Manager (LI page)
Altabel Group – Professional Software Development

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3 Responses to "Responsive web design vs mobile web development: advantages and challenges. HTML5’s momentum and Best tools for responsive web design"

Nice article. I was wondering if you have any input on the impact on Accessibility (US 508 / WAI) in regards to RWD vs. Mobile? Having been a big advocate of WAI and 508 for nearly a decade now, I’m astonished at how many major corporations still have, what I view, as non-compliant mobile versions (whether RWD or not) of their sites. Seems to me, too many companies just set up an “m dot” subdomain, strip out some content, and call that a site, all while forgetting that the formerly 12pt ft now looks like 2pt font and is basically unreadable without pinching and scrolling excessively. Whereas RWD seems to force companines into “thinking” about the mobile UI more.

Hi Brandon! Thanks for your comment so much and glad that you liked the article. Frankly speaking, I haven’t investigated this issue of accessibility so far but it’s worth taking into account for sure, and good that in USA it is paid quite much attention to. As for RWD and m.sites, I agree that many m dot web sites are not thought over too much and it makes them look like just following the trend impulsively. RWD requires even more thorough preparations, consideration of content, concept and architecture, and all this strictly in advance. I personally believe in RWD still my fear is that some companies may pursue its web site to be too fancy at the expense of its content quality. So it’s very important to find a right balance exactly for the very company and it for sure depends on a company’s profile and business sphere.

Awesome post. I loved the way you presented each steps. Thanks for share.

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