Why responsive design is a must-have for any online business

iPads, iPhones and other mobile devices are making it easier to use the web on the move, with 41% of us now surfing while away from home. Even at home, 59 per cent use their smartphone to shop.

Mobile commerce is already worth $25billion a year, and is growing exponentially – eMarketer predicts it will hit $86billion by 2016.

Unfortunately, as Nick Evans, Technical Director at ExtraMile Communications, explains many websites have not kept pace with technology, making them hard to read and forcing potential customers to visit rival, more user-friendly sites.

If a user has to scroll, pinch and zoom to find the information they need, they are unlikely to spend much time on the site.

Some companies have addressed this by investing in a mobile, cut-down version of their website, with less content than the original, to suit the smaller screen.

While that approach may solve the scrolling issue, it creates problems of its own.

For example, there is another site to maintain and optimise, adding another layer of administration and inflating costs. Every change made to the main site has to be replicated on the mobile one.

And it is only designed for smartphone screens, so the problems of usability on the varying screen sizes of tablets have not gone away.

The answer is a responsive, or adaptive, design.

Responsive websites use code that determines whether the site is being accessed from a smartphone, tablet, laptop, PC, Mac or web-enabled TV, and changes the layout accordingly.

The layout can also adapt to the orientation of the screen, whether it is vertical or horizontal.

This optimises the user experience and helps them achieve their objectives without having to switch between devices.

Examples of responsive sites are Facebook and other social networks, news sites like the BBC and Mashable, and ecommerce sites like Currys and PC World.

More surprising is how few mainstream retail sites are responsive. Visit many of the main supermarkets and household goods sites, and they remain stubbornly fixed.

Research suggests responsiveness has a major impact on conversions and transactions, with increases of up to 500% reported.

According to eConsultancy, brands like clothing retailer Bench have seen conversions double since implementing a mobile-friendly design.

Skinny Ties reported a 42.4 per cent increase in revenue from all devices within weeks, as well as a 13.6% improvement in conversion rates. Revenue from iPhone visits grew by 377.6 per cent!

And Time Magazine saw an increase in traffic, unique visits, and page views, and a reduction in their mobile bounce rate.

There are various reasons for this.

The site can be accessed by anybody, anywhere, using any device, and because the company has one site, rather than multiple sites, visitors can complete their transaction in a single visit.

There is no need to filter out content, so the full product range can be displayed.

Mobile sites, on the other hand, often have to remove important information, like video, and in some cases, whole ecommerce sections.

Above all, responsive sites are much more cost-effective, because there is only one site to maintain and optimise.

Content only has to be written once, and changes made once.

Responsive sites are also very SEO-friendly – Google loves them! Shoppers are increasingly demanding a user-friendly experience when they shop online – whichever device they are using.

Although responsiveness does not improve your rankings as such, the improvement in user experience encourages users to stay on your site, and gives them better access to your products and services.

So responsive websites are simply a must-have for any business which wants to retain customers and market share.