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To Go or Not to Go … Responsive

The trend toward a responsive approach to web design and why it’s catching on
University Business, May 2013

Have you noticed how nearly everybody has been weighing in on whether or not higher ed should embrace responsive websites? Web developers and designers working in universities, of course, but also marketers, communicators, and college magazine editors have debated, at conferences or on Twitter, the pros and cons of the responsive web design approach.

Only 18 months ago, I struggled to find a handful of early adopters to feature in my first column on responsive websites, published in February 2012. Soon, many web teams began experimenting with smaller projects, getting campus buy-in before tackling larger ones. On April 1, 2012, the University of Notre Dame (Ind.) launched an impressive redesigned responsive mobile-first website, spearheading a brand new way of designing websites for colleges and universities.

The adoption of the responsive web design approach has moved fast, very fast. As with anything moving this fast, some consultants and mobile web agencies have  raised concerns on why the approach can’t (or shouldn’t) work for every institution.

The debate revolves mainly around two points of contention.

First, responsive websites would intrinsically offer a suboptimal user experience by trying to serve too many masters (smartphones, tablets, desktops, and even TVs) instead of focusing on the growing population of mobile phone owners.

The second argument against a ‘one-adapts-to-all’ responsive approach focuses on the extra costs and complexity of these sites compared to regular websites.

Both concerns are valid and need to be carefully taken into consideration. Yet, they shouldn’t be used to justify waiting and discarding responsive web design.

The approach has been disruptive for many players in the industry. It offers a single solution based on HTML and CSS to replace several mobile, desktop, and tablet versions of a website. Mobile web frameworks or apps have required longer learning curves. The resistance to responsive was to be expected with all the time, money, and resources some have invested on dedicated mobile solutions.

So then, why go with a responsive site?

1. We live in a multi-device world!

According to the International Data Corporation (IDC) Smart Connected Device Tracker released in March, 60 percent of connected devices shipped in 2012 were smartphones, 29 percent were computers, and 11 percent tablets. Tablets are expected to outship PCs in 2013 and laptops in 2014, but there are definitely many types of connected devices in our daily lives.

The Pew Internet Research Center’s “Teens and Technology 2013” report reveals that 74 percent of teens aged 12 to 17 access the internet on cell phones, tablets, and other mobile devices at least occasionally; the remaining quarter relies on phones exclusively.

2. Mobile and tablet web traffic on university websites is on the rise.

As my “2013 State of the Mobile and Responsive Web in Higher Ed” survey report reveals, the share of traffic via mobile phones on campus websites almost doubled in a year, from 4.6 percent in 2011 to 9.3 percent in 2012. While the bulk of the institutions reported traffic shares in the 5 percent to 12 percent range, a handful witnessed mobile traffic representing more than 15 percent of the total over the year. At several schools, data from the first months of 2013 confirmed the trend: mobile traffic share keeps increasing. Tablet traffic on college websites went from 0.5 percent in 2011 to 3 percent in 2012.

3. More and more institutions have chosen to go responsive.

In that study, only 15 percent of institutions with a mobile solution had adopted the responsive web design approach as of February 2012. A year later, 51 percent of institutions surveyed had. For Penn State’s recent redesign project, making the site responsive was a requirement.

Responsive websites are catching on in higher ed because they represent a simpler solution to providing an appropriate experience to many users accessing websites on many devices. Yet, the responsive approach is not simple. It requires addressing the elephant in the room: web content and, more precisely, its intent, goal, and format. And that is definitely another can of worms.