The Ultimate Design Fight: Mobile vs. Responsive

It's time to get a mobile design for your business website. No, we're serious: you REALLY need to get a mobile website, especially if you are a retailer, since about 20% of all web traffic is now coming through mobile devices.

But that's just the tip of the iceberg: 4 out of 5 consumers use their smartphones to shop, and 70% of mobile searches lead to an online action within the hour. In fact, mobile searches convert two to three times better than conventional desktop searches. Taking the whole world together, more people have smartphones than toothbrushes or toilets.

So, do you need a mobile website? The answer is a definite yes. But whether or not you need a mobile website isn't at issue here. When it comes to mobile browsing, web designers are of two schools: mobile design and responsive design. What is each and which is best for your particular needs?

Mobile design

Mobile design involves two websites: your full, desktop-oriented website with all the functionalities and rich media of today's web design and your scaled-down mobile version. The URL for your mobile website will usually involve a "" or "". Usually, a website automatically detects the device and decides whether to display the full or the mobile version.

Here's an example taken from the CBC websites.

Here we have the typical desktop website, with three columns and lots of media.

Here's the screenshot of the mobile version on my Android phone. Notice the single column, the "m" in the address bar and the limited use of photos and media. 

The websites are similar in style, but there are obvious differences. I'm not sure about the CBC's content management system, but in general content for mobile websites need to be changed separately from that of the main websites; that is its main weakness in today's content-focused web design. Duplicating content between two CMS can be costly and time-consuming. We should also note that the CBC also has a variety of mobile apps for its news, radio and other programs.

The benefits of a mobile design is that you can easily control and update the look of your mobile website, independently from that of your desktop website. Although you do want to keep the appearance and feel as similar as possible, some companies might want to target a different audience between their mobile website and their desktop version. 

Responsive design

Responsive design uses a different approach. Instead of using two websites to cater to desktop and mobile users, a responsive design adapts to the size of the screen, whatever that size is. It will look as good on your 27 inch computer screen, your iPad or your smartphone. The size of the columns, images and content shrinks and grows with your screen, rather than leaving them stuck in the format dictated by either your desktop design or your mobile design.

Since North Studio specializes in responsive design, let's use our own website as an example.

You can check out our main page here.

Here's what it looks like on my Galaxy S4 Mini:

Content is now offered in a single column rather than three, and the size of the images has simply reduced. The tabs are still easily clickable. All the branding elements (background, logo, etc) and the general layout remain the same.

Responsive websites have several benefits over mobile websites. First, there is a single website to manage. No duplication of content, no need for 2 CMS. Whatever you do to your main website will be applied to all screen sizes. Second, you get to keep all your branding elements without the need to refit them to a mobile browser.

However, if you're looking for a specific mobile experience that's different from that of your desktop website, a responsive website may not work as well. In our minds, this is its only drawback.

What about apps?

Now, we're not limited to mobile websites when it comes to mobile browsing. In fact, it's increasingly obvious that mobile users prefer apps over mobile websites. However, apps are only really useful and effective in certain cases:

  • Interactive games
  • Regular usage (note-taking, email)
  • Personalization (calendar, RSS feeds)
  • Complex calculations (finance-related products)
  • Native functionality (photo or recording)
  • Offline access

A thorough analysis of your market, your needs and your sales process will help you determine whether you can benefit from a mobile website, an app, or both. We always recommend a user-centric approach to web design to increase the quality of your website and your visitors' satisfaction with it.

Do you have questions about mobile website design? Contact us or let us know in the comments below.