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"There is a criticism that responsive design sites on larger screens can look dull or too linear, and there's a lot of merit in that criticism," Falkowski says.
Critics of the responsive look on larger screens say it becomes too obviously modular, stacking and restacking modules of content atop one another in three, four or five columns. They say such designs lack the pizzazz achievable with a site designed specifically for a device.
"I feel like responsive design has sucked the soul out of web site design—everything is [in] boxes and grids. Where has the creativity gone?" says Noah Stokes, a partner at Bold, a web and mobile design and development firm. "Designers are considering the technical challenges of responsive web design in our designs, and it is there that we are finding ourselves forgoing a detailed design for a simpler one; perhaps one that fits into the many excellent responsive patterns that exist today. I wouldn't go so far as to call it settling, but I do think that we are letting what we know about the technical aspects of responsive web design limit our creativity on the visual side."
In a perfect world, retailers would have 10,000 developers customizing their sites on the fly for the seemingly infinite number of devices on the market, but this is not a perfect world so retailers are stuck with lowest-common-denominator solutions like responsive web design, says Sucharita Mulpuru, a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research Inc.
"Responsive design tends to be clunky, often slow, and less visually engaging, and often requires an entire web redesign to put pages in responsive format," Mulpuru adds.
But retailers in today's increasingly mobile world must sacrifice style for utility, Falkowski contends.
"Today we have to do mobile-first design ... because it's more important today to be highly usable than highly visual," he says.
Responsive design is still a new idea, and the debate is far from over. While it's now clear that retailers can solve the multi-device problem with responsive design, it's not yet clear that responsive can match the elegance of a site designed for a particular device. But as more retailers evolve the approach from the strict pure to the more flexible hybrid, responsive design could become, at least for some e-retailers, the easiest way to kill three birds with one stone.
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Adaptive design? Now what?!
Yes, just when you thought you were caught up with the latest in web design with responsive design, along comes adaptive design. So what is adaptive design and how does it differ from responsive design?
"The hallmark of responsive design is a fluid layout that changes the sizing and width of design elements depending on the device on which a page is being viewed," says Ben Seymour, director of professional services at Amplience Ltd., which builds adaptive design web sites. "By contrast, adaptive design not only changes the content but also the method of delivery depending on the device."
For example, adaptive design alters where on a page an embedded video is displayed based on the screen size and capabilities of the device requesting the page, Seymour explains. It can also determine that the video should not be embedded, because of the consumer's device limitations, and serve only a link to the video. To see adaptive in action, Seymour points to client us.LKBennett.com, a U.K.-based apparel and accessories e-retailer.
While sites designed to be responsive will expand, contract and rearrange based on the space available to them, adaptive design is different, says Jim Davidson, manager of marketing research at marketing firm Bronto Software Inc.
"Adaptive design sites detect the device a person is using and serve a design specific to that device," Davidson says. "Unlike the one-size-fits-all responsive design, adaptive serves unique designs. With adaptive, a retailer's servers uncover information about a device and the site 'adapts' by sending an appropriate version."
Adaptive design can do what responsive purposefully does not do, says Jay Dunn, chief marketing officer at Bare Necessities. "With adaptive," he says, "you have a set of layout sizes that make for better design than with responsive, where servers identify a device and simply flow content into spaces."
Adaptive design is not especially fitting for any particular kind of retailer; rather, any retailer might benefit from an adaptive approach, Davidson says. "There are pros and cons for responsive and adaptive," he says, "and it's up to the marketer to determine her preference."
Responsive web design: Pros and cons
- Create a single site that serves various devices, rather than spend time and money on desktop, tablet and smartphone sites.
- Sites may show up higher in natural search results because all the credit from original content and inbound links accrues to a single URL.
- Maintain a single code base, and make changes once that appear on all devices. The site changes its look based on screen size and page orientation by applying appropriate styling conventions.