Re-Thinking Mobile Site Strategies: Round 2: Responsive(Winner) v. Adaptive User Agents.

The war is over – Responsive mobile design has (kinda-sort of) vanquished the user-agent based mobile presentations.

responsive sample site

Responsive explained by Google.

The nice thing about the Internet is that good ideas evolve and rise to the top.  I little while ago we wrote on article advocating for continuing to use mobile user agents over or in conjunction with responsive design.  Well a lot of that was written in response (pun intended)  to the inundation of our clients with people offering mobile versions of their sites in their spam folders.  Generating a “mobile” site is less of an issue than it used to be, so long as your site is built mobile friendly from the ground up. This is  almost a given if your site has been updated recently because Responsive design won this battle.   Responsive is a simpler concept to understand than most development ideas.  A responsive site simply “responds” to the size of the screen.  What you might see in Responsive Design:

  1. if the user’s screen is “x” pixels wide then there is a sidebar,
  2. if that screen is smaller then the side is not rendered or it becomes a footer,
  3. if the menu is wider than the screen it becomes an icon,
  4. if the logo is more than 50% of the header, a smaller alternate image used,

You get the idea.

Rolling back our earlier contentions in principal, in hindsight,responsive just makes sense.   In fact if you have hired a web designer in the past 18 months and your site IS NOT RESPONSIVE – you got “da bidness”…..give us a call – we can fix this inexpensively.

With the advent of the smart phone the original mobile sites were really separate but simpler sites – that a user agent (a bit of code in the header) used to determine weather a user was mobile or desktop based on the operating system and browser.  Agents often bounced identified mobile users to different TLDs like a “.mobi” domain  or “m” sub-domains like that presented users with different content but as smart phones got smarter people began to lean on their phones as a significant if not primary road to the Internet a lot more often and terms like “Phablet” became a thing (Phone/Tablet hybrids or a nice way to say look at the size of my smart phone).  The problem with agents was that they were list driven and the list of mobile devices was changing rapidly and tablets presented a decision to an agent, mobile or desktop? The experience was not always the best.

User agent generated themes and plugins made a lot of sense from a development standpoint because screens were small and 3g Internet connections were slow so you could tailor the user experience to the device but the reality for web designers is we were building two websites.  More often than not to get this to work we had to have some “mobile only” content for users to look at but people got so used to surfing from their palms and 4G and 4th Generation (that’s the G) LTE wireless providers became the norm, that the inclination to limit what site visitors see became muted and less relevant.  Responsive design became a given for WordPress developers and integrated into the DNA of that content management system – by now THE most popular CMS platform for all websites and our favorite for most sites.

In all fairness our original article advocated a hybrid solution, during a transition period in mobile technology (way back in 2012),  which is still in principal what we advocate (meaning some elements like call buttons only appear on small screens) but responsive design as a primary design scheme makes sense (even if you sneak some mobile only content into the responsive elements) and separate simplistic mobile sites are soon going to be a thing of the past.  Setting up a responsive website is a little more work on the front end, even if you buy a robust responsive theme,  BUT a lot less on the back end and you maintain a single site and with a few minor exceptions;  one set of content is much easier to handle – especially if a site is updated often (which is should be if you want to get found).  That said, if your site employs user agents, meaning the mobile site looks and acts completely different than the desktop site (different colors and fonts are a dead giveaway of a user agent implementation) there is no reason to scrap your site-so long as there is SOME mobile version to your site your are OK.   That said technology changes fast and themes that work well one year are not great a couple years down the road; search engines are fickle and technology progresses rapidly – we recommend EVERYBODY rethinks their web site and entire web presence every three to four years.

Lots of business owners are inundated with mobile site ads.  If your site is not mobile optimized there are some things to think about when making it so.  There are two schools of thought when it comes to mobile web sites.  In nerd speak they are referred to as Responsive Web Design – which is an emerging heavyweight in mobile web strategy (and also means you have to redevelop your desktop site)  & then a separate mobile user site altogether, referred to as a User Agent Site or User Agent Design or a Mobile User Agent Site.   This strategy is primarily employed when you want to create a mobile experience that is unique from  .  If your site is a Static HTML site, this strategy means you need to create a whole new second site for visitors.  User Agent comes form the device itself, meaning whatever device is hitting the web-server makes what is called an “http request” for the URL link – the server sees what the client browser and operating system (collectively referred to as the agent) are.  Code on the site makes a decision where to send them.

We at Gulf2Bay Tech have employed both strategies based on client needs and desires but from this point on we have begun to employ a happy medium in sort of a hybrid strategy.  The attached video show Stan Andrew, our CEO and chief web developer describing why.

Responsive design is a great “out of the box” idea and is becoming a universal solution but when you have an existing site that needs to be adapted it can be a project.  That said responsive design makes you need to plan for every contingency, be it desktop or mobile or tablet or whatever, the problem is  you end up making sacrifices on both sides.  Things that work great two or three columns can get really ugly in one or vice versa.  The other thing is that a mobile experience is very different – I want to have quick access to call, contact, or get a map from my phone – I might want to read a bit if I am sitting at my desk.   This is where user agents come in.    If you use CMS (Content Management System) like WordPress or Joomla or DotNet.Nuke on your site – like all of the sites we build, you have the means via plugins 0r extensions to set up alternate user agent site that will pull existing content.   If you are starting with an existing static site you literally have to recreate the wheel in terms of a mobile agent based alternate site.  O.K. if you are not a techie you are probably thoroughly confused by this point.

The  real difference is in the content.  In a responsive site the mobile / desktop content is the same, what responsive is really responding  to it the width of the screen, it is literally deciding =based on pixels – how wide a given object should be and re sizing it or kicking it down below the object before it if there are not enough pixels.  It is literally responding to the size of the screen.  Images are only as wide as they can be, menus that don’t fit become a button that has to be touched to get a drop down etc., etc,.  In a perfect world this is a perfect solution and a lot of developers treat it like it is because if they start with a responsive CMS theme it takes the load of work to do a mobile site off their back.

So developers like Responsive sites because every user gets the same content – meaning that if they start with a responsive design – They don’t have to think about the mobile content.  Developing can be hard tedious and time consuming and developers, like the rest of homo sapiens, are lazy and have a finite amount of time they can spend on a given site.  If they start with a responsive layout the mobile site takes care of itself – sort of.

This is great BUT there is a problem (you know there was a but).  Some things just don’t work in responsive layouts.  Don’t believe me – pull open any local online magazine from your town in your phone (most of them are responsive) click around to three unique articles.  I guarantee you will find something you think lays out funny.  Local magazines don’t tend to have a budget for on-staff developers so they take the easy way out.  Now try more national news sites – fewer issues across the board.  They also employ user agents to show you a different experience.  User agent sites let you redirect the user to some specific mobile content.  Why would you want this?  Things make sense in mobile (call now, simpler contact form for names numbers or emails, and maps) because the user is like in transit or in a hurry.  These things don’t belong or should be different on a desktop site.  

The first user agent sites were simple but with the advent of mobile and the robustness of modern CMS’s like Joomla and WordPress you don’t have to choose.  You can show mobile users a simple home page that drills into deeper content  Couple an alternate mobile ( agent based) theme (to a responsive Desktop theme) with a CMS and you can have your cake and eat it to.


Before the advent of responsive sites


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