Mobile site or responsive web design? This question stirs lively discussions with “It depends.” answer heard more and more often. Now that you know the pros and cons of mobile sites and responsive web design, and how both types of websites out there on the market are performing, it is time to turn to the mobile user. The “It depends.” stands for WHAT they want to get done on your website they enter on a handheld device.

Consider this. Mark is an office assistant. The last restaurant that delivered lunch to his company has gained a „no” score in a staff poll. He needs to find a new one. As he commutes to work daily, he is waiting at a bus stop right now. He has just pulled his smartphone out of his pocket. What is he about to do?

Source: The World Without Mobile by Qualcomm

Most probably, Mark will be „launching virtual birds at virtual pigs”, as Sarah Kessler from Mashable put it, since waiting at the bus stop is a perfect environment for killing time on mobile. If Mark searches for restaurants at all, this will only be to book a table for a dinner with his girlfriend. For sure, he will not be checking catering offers for his company. How come?

Hold on a sec, I’ll check!

Mobile owners use their devices on the go, in the meantime, for short-time browsing and to get information instantly. Data shows that most mobile searches are one-word. On the contrary, desktop searches are usually multi-word.

We can safely assume that simple mobile searches are meant to deliver precise and, in a sense, either-or information. We expect mobile search results to be of a narrowing-down character, but we are more ready to go beyond our primary search focus and accept related propositions on desktop.

A website of a spa with a restaurant offering cleansing meals situated within 20km would be an interesting option to consider for a “restaurant” query on desktop. For the same search on mobile we would expect to receive a list of nearest restaurants with mobile friendly sites fitted with instant contact features such as click-to-call and book-a-table buttons, or maps with driving directions. If we were to go through the extra options on mobile, like the spa with the restaurant in the suburbs, we would probably crash into the first lamp post.

Online purchasing behaviours provide a further insight into the different needs of mobile and desktop users. The top three groups of products purchased via handheld devices are event tickets, gift cards and food. What Internet surfers buy most often on desktop computers are electronics, books and clothing.

It is quite evident that mobile purchases are, generally, limited to instant need products, while desktop purchases involve decision making, based on a comprehensive research on market trends, brands and prices.

We have seen that the search and the purchase processes, even if carried out by the same user, can be of an entirely different character on mobile devices and desktop computers. It is the visitors’ behaviours that should have the prevailing influence on the choice of the solution – a separate mobile site or a responsive one.

Mobile site or responsive web design?

If I were the owner of a restaurant offering additional catering services for companies – the one that Mark is going to search for – I would decide to have two websites, i.e.: a desktop one and a separate mobile site.

I would fill the mobile site with content and features essential to mobile users. I would include the opening hours, the menu, the map and click-to-call/book buttons. With nice graphics and a high-quality photo or two, I believe it would meet my goals.

A customer-focused restaurant mobile site:

I would only mention the catering services and go into details on the desktop website, where I would present the full offer, add a downloadable PDF catalogue, references from current customers and more.

Mark, just as other office assistants, will be searching for this kind of information at work – on his desktop computer. By having two websites I would account for different behaviours of users visiting my restaurant on desktop computers and on mobile devices.

The answer to the question whether to go mobile or responsive lies in the behaviours of your mobile visitors. If they perform some actions on their handheld devices, but switch to desktop computers for different ones, then you should go for the separate mobile site targeted specifically at mobile users. But if they do the same things regardless of the device, then responsive web design might be the right solution.

Mobile first components

The majority of responsive websites today focus exclusively on resizing and scaling with no attention given to content. Not to mention the content in the mobile context. If, for one reason or another, you decide to go responsive, do your best to design mobile first components.

What is desirable on larger screens, can be seen as merely additional content on smaller devices. To approach the mobile first challenge categorize and divide the content of your pages. Highlight the essential information and move extra pieces to the back. How can this be achieved?

One such solution proposed by Luke Wroblewski says:

“Everything that is available to us is just not displayed by default. However, when we load the screen on a larger size device, all this additional content appears.”

Collapsible and accordion content display designs, widely used on mobile sites, let your readers have your complete content compressed smartly within collapsible show/hide chunks.

Description hidden by default on a mobile site

The mobile first approach for responsive web design is rather expensive and time consuming, but limiting RWD only to resizing misses the point. Whichever solution you opt for, it is not a goal in itself. Your goal is the best possible mobile experience.

This post was originally published on ActiveMobi.