Responsive templates – are they really the answer?

There’s been a lot of talk lately about responsive design. Do you know about ‘responsive’? It’s the magic new template style that displays your content beautifully regardless of the device your customer is using.

It works a bit like this:

You have one website and one set of content. No more mobile sites. The templates for your site detect the device your customer is using to view your site and rearrange the content and resize the images to match.


For example

Your site on a desktop might have a three column layout with large images, local navigation in the left column, ads in the right column and content in the middle.

Your site on a tablet could be a two column layout, still with large images but maybe the navigation is now “hamburger menu” style (I’m hoping we all know that a hamburger menu is the wee three-line icon that, when touched, expands out with a site menu).

Your site on a smart phone screen would only have the one column, smaller images and the faithful hamburger menu tucked away as an icon in the top right hand corner of the screen.

Although your site looks quite different on each device, the core content remains the same. So an article that appears in the middle column of your desktop site, is now (unchanged) in the main left hand column of your tablet and is the sole visible content on your smart phone.

Neat isn’t it?

But is that really enough?

Do we really use content on our phones, tablets and computers in the same way?

I’m a bit skeptical about the idea that the same content works equally well on desktops, tablets and smart phones. Like most digital natives these days, I have the trifecta of a laptop, a tablet (totally in love with my new iPad) and a smart phone. And I definitely don’t use them in the same way.

All the usability testing I’ve conducted, or watched, tells me that most other people also use their different devices in different ways.

Using smart phones

If you’re anything like me, your smart phone is never more than a few feet away from you. It’s the first thing you reach for when you want to know something quickly.

“What’s the address of that restaurant we like?” Google it on your phone.

“Are there any ATMs around here?” Check your bank’s app on your phone.

“When is the train due?” Look up the schedule on your phone.

I use my smart phone for quick tasks, requiring very little time or attention from me. Also, my phone is good for location-based searches, using the GPS on my phone


My tablet is usually nearby but I only pull it out if I need a bigger screen or a keyboard (I have one of those covers that doubles as a keyboard, SO cool). The tablet is great for reading on the train, watching movies (good old YouTube) and general web browsing. It is also nice for writing emails, as long as I have a surface to lean on.

I find I spend longer on the tablet than I do the phone. I reading is much easier and I’m prepared to do more of it. The phone is very much get in, do a task, get out. The tablet is a bit more of a leisure time device.

Laptops and desktops

And then there’s the laptop. Now I am lucky. I have a solid state drive on my laptop, so it starts quickly, but it still only comes out when I want to get serious.

When I get the laptop out (and yes, it lives in a laptop bag, in a cupboard, so I really am “getting it out”) I have a specific task in mind and I’m willing to put some time into getting it done.  Recent tasks on the laptop were:

  • planning and booking an overseas trip
  • applying for jobs (I am a contractor, so this is a fairly frequent occurrence)
  • shopping around for car insurance

These were all fairly time-consuming tasks with a high level of commitment on my part. I was fairly determined to see them through, so I sat myself down away from other distractions and focused on each task.

This seems to be one of the distinctions between PC/laptop use and use of tablets. Many people pull out their tablets while watching television, sitting on the bus or train or chatting in a café. PCs and laptops aren’t quite as portable (yes, I know laptops are portable, but not nearly as much as tablets – none of this is exact you know) they usually sit on a desk or other dedicated area.

I find my attention span and concentration on my task is much higher when I’m using my laptop or a computer at work (call me Pavlov’s dog if you will but I am trained to take computers seriously).

So what’s the answer?

So what does all this have to do with responsive templates, I hear you ask? Good question.

I don’t think rearranging content to fit into different sized screens is the be-all and end-all of device-specific usability. I think there is more to making content work well from device to device than just layout.

To make our site content work for our customers, across all devices, we need to understand what tasks they do on each device and what detail they need for those tasks. We need to tailor our content to match those tasks and how they differ depending on the device being used.

Leaning on responsive templates to solve the “device problem” is thinking only about layout. Tailoring the layout of your site, without modifying the content will result in either:

  • smart phones pages that are hideously long, forcing customers to scroll (or swipe) through unending screens of content to find (or try to find) what they’re looking for or
  • desktop pages that are so light on content that they tell the customer nothing.

And when you think about it, I’ve only looked at the three main types of device. I haven’t even looked at smart TVs, game consoles or smart watches. Imagine trying to write the same content to fit on that spectrum of screen size.

Responsive templates are a really nice way of cleanly reorganising the structure of your site so that it displays nicely on the devices our customers use to view our web offerings. But I don’t think they can totally replace m.sites or tailored content.

If you’d like some help shaping your site content for all manner of devices, have a chat with F-Two consulting. We can help you teach your website how to talk your customers’ language.

3 thoughts on “Responsive templates – are they really the answer?

  1. strivingbeyond

    Nice write up. I’ve been thinking about these questions myself as I’ve just set up my own website. The loss of detail eg the image slider from the mobile friendly format the site easier to use, but users miss the experience that the website provides. If most people like you only occasionally use a laptop, you have to wonder what the point is of creating something that works best on a laptop. Maybe the real focus should be on optimising mobile functionality. Thanks.


    1. sophiemckinlay Post author

      Good point. Mobile functionality is becoming increasingly important.

      But don’t forget that while we are spending more and more time on our mobiles and tablets. A lot of digital natives spend their working days on desktops and laptops.

      The key is deciding what audience your content will appeal to, what they are likely to use it for (work or play) and therefore what device they are likely to use to access it.

      Although mobile is becoming our primary way of using the web, we tend to move from mobile to tablet to desktop as tasks become more complex.

      As with all things digital – the answer is never simple.

      Liked by 1 person


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