Sites for Mobile Devices: Responsive Web Design vs Mobile Specific Theme

webdevelopmentIt’s called mobile web design, and everybody has heard of it, unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last 6 months. In fact, this is one topic that is becoming increasingly important as many people are now using their mobile devices to browse the web.

Schools should definitely consider the possibilities and options that are tied to this trend. You will notice a large portion of your site visitors are using mobile or tablet devices and it makes for a good reason to exploit the advantages offered by mobile browsing.

You’ll need to consider whether to opt for a responsive web design or create a  mobile specific theme. If you are operating on a tight budget, then a simple one page mobile splash screen may do, but on the other hand if you want to exploit the advantages of a fully compatible mobile and desktop design, then a responsive website design is your best option.

A specific mobile theme can become quite cumbersome to manage as it can be quite different to your main design and won’t always reflect the latest changes or additions you make to your main website.

Before jumping to conclusions, the following is a quick rundown of details about the two. It will help you decide whether you need a responsive web design or a mobile specific theme for your site.

What exactly is responsive web design?

It’s a relatively new concept in the industry. Ideally, this practice makes the website in question respond in relation to the screen size of the device it is being viewed on. For instance, if you are viewing the website on a mobile phone, some content will reposition itself underneath other content as opposed to scaling the whole page to fit everything in. This is a much preferred way of browsing a web page. Websites that don’t support mobile devices will typically shrink to the screen size which means you have to zoom in and out in order to navigate your way around the website and read the content you are interested in.

What is a mobile specific theme?

Just like the name suggests, it’s a separately built theme (set of files) that is meant specifically for mobile browsing. This practice follows a different set of programming principles, coding and etiquette. It essentially means a developer has to build two separate themes for a website. One for desktop computers and another for mobile devices. Extra code is added to detect whether the visitor is browsing from a desktop or mobile device, and shows the relevant theme for that device. Websites that typically have “m.” in front of their domain are using a mobile specific theme. When a mobile user is detected they are redirected to this subdomain to view the mobile version of the website.

This solution is not as elegant as a responsive design but is sometimes necessary or practical for sites that have been online for some time and where budget is an issue. The other problem with this method is ease of implementation will depend highly on the CMS used on the website and whether it natively supports plugins or options for a mobile specific theme.

So which one do you choose? Should you go for responsive design or a mobile specific theme?

Choosing between the two can be tricky because of the several factors involved. If you are building a new website or considering a total re-design of your current website, then go for responsive design.

If you don’t want to change your current website and just want to serve mobile visitors better than you could ask your web developer to create a mobile specific theme. Bear in mind this can often be just as expensive as the initial site design but potentially cheaper than re-designing and coding the whole website to be responsive.

The bottom line is this: Both choices can be viable depending on your audience and resources. The general standard these days is moving much more towards responsive design and we will see a lot more schools adopting this new methodology. Take a look at your Google Analytics data to determine how much of your site traffic is coming from mobile devices and then make your assessment on how much budget you want to put towards serving your mobile viewers better.

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Mike Leembruggen

Mike Leembruggen is an internet marketer and software developer. Currently working with a number of schools and universities. If you are interested in working with Mike then please email mike@mikeleembruggen.com

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