January 22, 2014, 8:34 AM

Responsive design makes its case

Analysis from Internet Retailer’s newly published 2014 Guide to E-Commerce Site Design & Usability lays out the pros and cons of this much-discussed design technique that adapts the look of a retail web site to the device the consumer is using.

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In late 2011, e-retailer Skinny Ties decided it was overdue for a site redesign. It also was wrestling with how to serve the growing number of online shoppers arriving via smartphones and tablets. At the time, most retailers were addressing the mobile conundrum by creating a mobile commerce site for smartphones separate from their desktop sites, and largely relying on their PC sites to serve the then-small group of tablet shoppers. Skinny Ties chose a different path.

Skinny Ties’ head of information technology, Brendan Falkowski, was well read in design topics, and came across the then-new concept called responsive web design, which is covered extensively in the newly published, digital-only, 2014 edition of the Guide to E-Commerce Site Design & Usability.

The idea was that a single web site would adjust to the size of the screen the visitor was viewing, any screen, all from one code base and one set of web content. Falkowski decided that was precisely what Skinny Ties needed. Why redesign the e-commerce site, create a site for smartphones, and create a site for tablets, when he could just build one site that automatically transformed itself for all three, and for widescreen monitors, smart TVs and devices yet to be?

So Falkowski single-handedly built a new site for Skinny Ties using responsive design techniques, with guidance from president Stuart Sanft. The approach was still so new that he could not find another retailer with a responsive site and consequently had to invent from scratch many design elements and coding solutions. (Responsive design is more a set of principles than a structured technique, though today there is a growing body of knowledge about how to code responsive sites.)

Skinny Ties launched its responsive site in October 2012. As of November 2013, sales via tablets were up 190% and via smartphones up 231%, Sanft reports. And responsive didn’t just help with mobile devices: Sales via desktops and laptops were up 99%.

“Responsive design is directly responsible for our shoppers converting at a much higher rate than before,” Falkowski says.

The responsive design sites of Skinny Ties, 1-800-Contacts Inc., CPO Commerce Inc. and Fathead LLC are studied in detail in the digital-only 2014 Guide to E-Commerce Site Design & Usability published today. Design and mobile commerce experts debate the pros and cons of the increasingly popular technique, which some say is a godsend and others contend is not the right solution for many online retailers.

The all-new and painstakingly-researched 2014 Guide to E-Commerce Site Design & Usability provides extensive proprietary data and analysis of web site design, identifies the latest design and usability trends—from responsive web design, to killer mobile  apps and user-friendly m-commerce sites—and reveals the best practices and key vendors needed to design and maintain profitable e-retailing businesses.

Increasing use of mobile devices is driving the interest in responsive design. In 2013, mobile became the predominant way shoppers interacted with e-retail: 44% of time spent with online retailers occurred on a smartphone and 11% on a tablet, according to web measurement firm comScore Inc. Google Inc. research shows that 85% of online shoppers start shopping on one device and finish on another, highlighting the importance of a retailer presenting its web site effectively no matter what device the shopper is using.

The appeal of a single web site that can wow consumers on all devices is nearly irresistible. Not only does it mean a retailer only has to build one site, it also can add a product or promotion one time and have the update appear on all screens, meaning far less maintenance than operating three separate sites. Furthermore, advocates argue that responsive sites will inevitably rise in natural search rankings because every page on a responsive site has not three URLs (desktop site, tablet site, smartphone site), which split apart the total value or credibility assigned by Google and Bing, but one URL, providing a stronger, consolidated target for search results.

Critics, however, say a responsive site can’t be as appealing as one designed specifically for a PC or a smartphone, and that the design approach particularly falls short for retailers that offer many SKUs. As the debate rages, more retailers are going the responsive route. As they do, they are developing variations on the responsive concept that improve site performance and address some of the limitations of the earliest responsive retail sites.

The old ways of designing for web commerce won’t cut it any longer, says Phil Barrett, senior vice president of e-commerce and mobile at 1-800-Contacts.com.  The e-retailer tested its old m-commerce site for smartphone shoppers against a new responsive design site, and the responsive site won. “In the future, all online shopping will be mobile,” Barrett says. “We’re trying to get ahead of it and put our best mobile offerings in place.”

To get the in-depth study of responsive design in retail, along with a treasure trove of information on the most successful web commerce design strategies and technologies contained in the digital-only 2014 Guide to E-Commerce Site Design & Usability, click here to order.

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