Responsive Web design makes an inefficient design too darn easy

Is easy design too easy? More importantly, is it costing e-commerce sites serious dollars?

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Responsive Web design makes scaling a website up and down for a mobile device easy. Almost as easy as it facilitates sloppy designs that don't even try to intelligently choose what stays, what goes and, most critically, what should stand by until it's needed.

Fast response, almost-instant home pages and effortless scrolling are always Web design goals, but with the increasingly plummeting attention spans of mobile users, this is crucial. Nowhere is it more crucial than retail mobile sites and/or apps, where purchasing a plasma screen TV with free shipping waits for no man.

Here's where things get tricky. A proper design is intelligent, where image size/resolution/retention choices are not things that can be delegated to a script. Is that image decorative — an attractive model, a splash of vibrant color — or is it an essential depiction of the product, something that could make or break a sale?

The problem with responsive design is that it makes it far too easy to sit back and let the algorithms make the decisions. To be fair, the resultant pages generally look fine. But what they almost never are is as efficient as possible, since that requires human judgment.

I had an interesting discussion about this on Thursday (Sept. 10) with Ari Weil, the marketing vice president for a cloud vendor called Yottaa. Yes, Weil's company sells personalized designs — where the company's staff offers those human decisions — but his argument still works, severe business biases notwithstanding. He argued that responsive Web design was originally intended as a temporary Band-Aid for desktop scaling and it was forced into double duty working with phones (which were never initially designed to display data) where it "tries to force efficiencies on those devices. The result? Pages that are bloated, slow and scale poorly."

The problem in detecting these responsive site shortfalls is reminiscent of the problem of overloaded and slow e-commerce sites. All the e-commerce director sees are the large number of sales that are recorded. If they're 70% more than yesterday, everything seems great. What's missing? That e-commerce director has no clue how many customers are being turned away and, therefore, how much better than 70% the figure would have been had the site been up more.

With responsive design, there is a similar blind spot. The site/Web page looks good. But there's no way for the e-commerce team to know how many customers left because of slow response. They'll never know how many dollars would have otherwise been spent with them.

Up to now in this column, I've taken the shorthand site/app to refer to both, but there's a reason to split the two. Done properly, an app should deliver far better initial performance than a site, if for no other reason than the browser's initial download is eliminated and everything is focused on that retailer's single message.

Still, companies are focusing less on apps and more on mobile sites. Weil said the reason is the fear that shoppers may not want to download an app for a merchant they don't intend to use that often. Although that's true, the reason for app resistance is much deeper.

First, it's not that unusual for friends, family and romantic partners (potential as well as actual) to see the home screen/screens of someone's mobile device. That means that the apps they choose will signal how they want to be perceived. That gives a big edge to impressive sites — an atlas, Barron's, the Society for the Betterment of Babies and Small Animals — that will never be opened. The same goes for favorite sites that one may not be proud of visiting (yeah, readers, no examples are needed here).

Second, and much more fundamentally, both Apple's iOS and Google's Android mobile OSes are dreadful at displaying a lot of apps. It's not uncommon for power users to have 40 or more (sometimes far more) apps on their phones. When that happens, it can literally take more time to find the app than to launch a browser and type in the URL.

A confession, from someone who has a lot of apps on his iPhone: When no one is around, I have found myself asking Siri to find my app by saying "Siri, open GoogleMaps." Yes, I take inordinate pleasure in asking Siri to open Google apps. But having fun taunting Siri aside, it's the fastest way to open the app. And that's pretty sad.

Both iOS and Android "make it a chore to have too many apps," Weil said. "People continue to show us through their behavior that they like the actual Web and prefer it to apps." If mobile GUIs were better at handling lots of app icons, I doubt that would be true.

Those mobile OSes were designed to make things easy, not efficient. Sound familiar?

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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