Size matters: why we care about responsive design

30 April 2015

Image via noblestudios.com

Recently Google blogged that it would be changing its search algorithms to give mobile-friendliness more importance in search rankings. You might have previously started to see "mobile-friendly" popping up in your search results. Now that 21 April has passed us by, the shift that many are calling "Mobilegeddon" is here.

Some background: Responsive web design and open standards

Mobile-friendliness is part of a broader concept called responsive web design, which is basically the practice of building a website that will detect and respond to your device's screen size. Farewell to pinch and zoom. See which New Zealand sites failed the mobile friendliness test.

Almost five years ago to the day, A List Apart published an article on responsive web design by Ethan Marcotte that shook up the internet world like few things before it. It almost entirely predicted the internet as we know it today.

A List Apart have for a long time pushed for web standards (including responsive design); guidelines that designers and developers should follow to help make the internet a more accessible place, and many have been broadly been adopted by the web design community, including the World Wide Web Consortium​.

The potential impact on your business

Google has included a small 'mobile-friendly' label on its search results for a while now, so that people know what they're in for before they click. Well, from now on if your site is not mobile-optimised you'll be suffering in Google's rankings.

So what will that mean? For a cafe it might mean missing walk-ins; for journalism of all forms (be it blogs or nationwide newspapers) a lower readership; for retailers fewer online shoppers, which could mean fewer customers in your shop; for plumbers it might mean a missed opportunity when someone's pipes play up. Every business can benefit from having a consistent, modern online presence, one that caters to all its users, not just ones behind a desk.

Let's imagine you Google 'responsive web design'. The search results you receive on your desktop will now differ from what you see when querying that same term on your phone. Up until last week you were given the same results. Now though, on your mobile you'll receive a different rank based on, partly, whether or not those sites are mobile-friendly. You can test out your site's mobile-friendliness using Google test and it'll tell you if your site has a mobile-friendly design. If so, awesome! If not, well, what next? Keep reading.

Benefits for users, designers and developers

A more accessible online experience is encouraging for anyone who uses the internet: users with poor sight can now use your site with fewer impediments; buttons on your smartphone are large enough for fingers; navigation can be collapsed to take up less screen space; and text is easier to read.

Under the hood, a responsive design generally means one lot of code to rule them all; one that detects your screen size and displays just the right thing, which in turn means the site is quicker to load. We can adjust how images display, omit background video or display text differently according to screen size.

Towards the new normal

Responsive web design is not as scary as it used to be. We can say goodbye to the days of two (or three?) distinct website versions and a lack of best-practice guidelines and precedents for designers.

Mobile internet use is not only about smartphones, either. Watches, car interfaces and who knows what else – fridges? – are now becoming internet-enabled. Designing and building websites for the future, where device size is unknown, is paramount.

Back in 2011, when Springload built the Ways to Bank & First Home Buyer's Guide site for Kiwibank, it was our first responsive endeavour. That's back when an iPhone 4S was the latest thing. It was new and exciting for us, and now three and a half years later it's the only way we work.

The five years since Marcotte's article is an age in internet years. Google has recognised the significance of this paradigm shift and it's time for Kiwi businesses to do the same. If your business relies on search results for any of its traffic (and by that, we're talking pretty much all businesses), then you're going to need to consider becoming mobile-friendly, if you haven't already. Otherwise you risk missing out on a huge share of the mobile market.

  • Google offers this Get Started guide as a handy place to start on your road to mobile-friendliness. It'll steer you in the right direction.

This was originally published by StopPress on 30 April 2015.