Repurposing vs Optimized Design: It’s Not a Battle

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Jakob Nielsen of is no stranger to controversy and his recent Repurposing vs Optimized Design article makes a bold statement:

It’s cheap but degrading to reuse content and design across diverging media forms like print vs online or desktop vs mobile. Superior UX requires tight platform integration.

Jakob states there are two opposing schools:

  • Repurposing (responsive design): make as few designs as possible and reuse the same material across platforms. This has cost advantages, but results in a substandard user experience.
  • Platform optimization (device-specific design): create different user interfaces for each platform and integrate the user experience layers as tightly as possible. The result: higher costs but better usability and bigger profits.

The article resulted in a Tweetstorm:

Jakob Nielsen analyzes Responsive Design and comes up with dumb conclusions. Again.

For 17 years, Jakob Nielsen has been citing his own work as proof of everything. Somebody make it stop.

I’ve thought Jakob Nielsen was a self-important snob for years. Glad to see the Cult of Nielsen crumbling at last.

Do people still pay any attention to Jakob Nielsen or is he hanging around just to annoy web developers?

Jakob Nielsen is 100% right on mobile. Says Jakob Nielsen.

It’s amazing to watch Jakob Nielsen make himself more and more irrelevant with almost every piece he writes.

The Weaknesses of Responsive Design

Jakob claims most responsive websites are too primitive. They rearrange the same content and change dimensions of some elements, but rarely:

  • Adapt the content, i.e. provide shorter and simpler articles for mobile.
  • Use alternative, cropped or zoomed images.
  • Cater for touch input.
  • Reduce or modify the feature set to suit smaller devices.

Websites should consider the user context. Requirements change depending on where a user is, what they’re doing and what device they’re using. Consider the website for a bus company; a desktop user may want to browse timetables whereas a mobile user may need to find the nearest station.

Jakob admits this could be achieved with responsive techniques but, once you account for all these differences, you effectively have two separate designs. But he makes a valid point: if potential revenue is greater than cost, a site designed specifically for mobile devices makes good business sense.

Calculating Potential Revenue

This is where Jakob’s argument breaks down. For most websites, the cost of developing a separate mobile site makes no commercial sense whatsoever. This is especially true when you consider Jakob’s suggestion of creating and maintaining two or more sets of content.

The majority of websites receive few mobile users — usually less than 10% of visitors. It may be increasing, but does it make commercial sense to throw money at a problem which does not yet exist and is subject to radical technical changes? I’m all for being pro-active, but this leads to another point: you cannot make assumptions about user a user’s habits, desires or requirements.

Jakob paints a black and white picture: mobile users want less content and simpler features. However, it’s impossible to determine context when all you actually know is the screen resolution. The situation is made more difficult with newer mobiles which have screen sizes approaching those of tablets and the relatively diminutive iPad 3 exceeds the resolution of a top-end desktop PC. You may be able to make context judgments based on the current time or GPS location but, ultimately, you don’t know whether the user is rushing for a bus or lying in bed.

The Strength of Responsive Design

Responsive design provides a solution. A website primarily designed for desktop use can be restructured to provide a mobile-friendly experience at minimal expense. It may not be perfect, but it opens access and your site isn’t restricted to certain devices or user groups.

It’s a starting point — not the end. It’s now possible to gather statistics about devices and tie them to typical user journeys. If you can establish that X% of access is from a smartphone and Y% of those users proceed to feature Z, you may be able to justify further development. In extreme cases, a standalone mobile site will aid usability and increase profitability.

It’s Not a Battle

Jakob makes two broad assumptions but the reality is not as clear-cut:

  1. You have a mobile context or a desktop context.

    There are thousands of differing devices, screen sizes and situations when they are used. People use their mobile while watching TV — should they always receive a summarized article? Mobile exceeds desktop usage in many African countries because it’s cost-effective and reliable — should they be offered restricted functionality?

  2. Repurposing and optimizing designs are opposing technologies.

    Why? There are an infinite number of ways to develop the same solution. An optimized design can still use responsive techniques and vice versa. Ultimately, either can be used in differing quantities to achieve the same goal.

Jakob has been accused of bashing responsive design. The tone of his article gives that impression and it detracts from his main point: a dedicated mobile design offers a better mobile experience. If he’s guilty of anything, it’s stating the obvious.

Craig BucklerCraig Buckler
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Craig is a freelance UK web consultant who built his first page for IE2.0 in 1995. Since that time he's been advocating standards, accessibility, and best-practice HTML5 techniques. He's created enterprise specifications, websites and online applications for companies and organisations including the UK Parliament, the European Parliament, the Department of Energy & Climate Change, Microsoft, and more. He's written more than 1,000 articles for SitePoint and you can find him @craigbuckler.

CSS3HTML5 Dev CenterHTML5 Tutorials & ArticlesResponsive Design
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