As web users come to expect the same online experience on every device they use, firms are being urged to make use of Responsive Web Design (RWD) to improve customers’ experience or lose out to a site that does. RWD – where sites are created in a way that optimises the user’s experience by effectively changing shape and size according to the device – has seen a huge surge in popularity.

A panel of experts at a round table held by hosting and cloud specialist UKFast discussed the reasons behind this recent rise in RWD and how this affects online firms.

Duncan Hallas, chief operating officer at Netbiscuits, explained that RWD is not a new idea but had recently been accelerated. He said: “RWD has been around a long time; however it has become prevalent recently owing to a few people who have been able to bring it to life, because they understand what the user experience should look like.”

Rick Burgess, consultant at FreshNetworks attributed the recent RWD boom to the explosion of tablets and mobile devices, and their capabilities: “The number of devices has increased and the capability of those devices has increased. Clients are more aware of RWD now and are pushing for it.”

He concurred that RWD is not a new phenomenon, noting “It’s always been there – this is just a new layer.”

Hallas said: “Getting the user interface right was the thing that Apple brought to this world. Treating it as a service and an experience rather than a function is fundamental to its success.”

Jonathan Bowers, MD of Manchester hosting specialist UKFast said: “As users become more accustomed to a wide range of devices, they expect to have the same web experience across all of these. There are other options – including mobile-optimised sites or apps – but RWD offers a simpler, cost-effective alternative.

“Shoppers want the smoothest possible process for making a purchase online. If you don’t improve your site so that the design fits each device and the pages load quickly, the shopper will simply visit somewhere else that does, taking their money with them.”

A cautionary point was raised by Carlos Menezes, head of optimise at Quirk, who voiced concerns that RWD was being used as a valuable marketing tool, rather than its intended purpose with usability at its heart. He said: “One thing you wonder is how much of RWD is led by users’ needs and how much by marketers’ needs.”

The panel offered the following advice to companies planning to implement RWD in their offerings:

  • Look at your existing site and use your statistics. See what your users are looking at and how those have trended previously – this will allow you to predict how the site will behave
  • Devise personas based on what your customers are doing on a daily basis to identify the features that are most important to them
  • Assess your business objectives and revisit why you are doing what you do. Understand the parameters you are working within – are you working with RWD because of budget constraints or because it will deliver the best experience? How long will you have the site for and how well you do know your own content? Answering these questions will help you understand what users want to do differently.