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Three approaches to mobile responsive design

by Randall Craig on June 12, 2015

Filed in: Blog, Make It Happen Tipsheet, Web, Web development

Tagged as: , ,

If you use the web on a mobile device, do you ever get frustrated by a site that forces you to pinch-and-zoom to read the content?  Or a mobile website that seems to hide what you think is key information – like the street address and phone number?

If your organization is considering a new website, you likely already know that the site must be mobile-friendly; in developer-speak, this means that the site must be developed using responsive design: the site must be usable no matter what device is knocking at the web server’s door.

Unfortunately, not all responsive design is the same.

There are three major ways that responsive design can be implemented, with vastly different impacts on the organization – and the user.  Which one is used is a function of your budget… and the developer’s experience.

1) Plug-in approach.  There are plug-ins for many web content management systems that can “automatically convert” the site into a responsive site.  Usually, this means that the menu would no longer appear at the top of the screen, but instead be collapsed into a mobile-style hamburger menu in the top left corner.  All of the remaining content would be stacked, accessible by scrolling through a very long page, or by clicking to unhide certain content.  Most of these plug-ins will also solve the font size problem.  This approach is almost costless – but has some critical flaws.  Read on.

2) Desktop recast approach:  This approach takes the standard design, and during the development process creates special-for mobile layouts and CSS files.  If the top of the home page has a rotating graphic, with five buttons underneath, this approach would simply reduce the size of the rotating graphic, and perhaps move the five buttons to the right (on a tablet), or stacked below (on a mobile phone).  The idea is to code the page so that the design easily flows from one layout to the other, based on the window size of the device. While the design is custom, this approach evolves that design from the desktop.  It also has a critical flaw.  Read on.

3) Use-case approach: This approach is embedded within the strategy and design process, and starts with one question: what would the user want to do when using the mobile site?  Likely, it is to find the organization’s street address or phone number.  Or perhaps it would be to register their product, or access customer-support how-to videos.  If this is true, then fancy rotating graphics (which take a long time to download) and “welcome to company ABC” text make no sense on a mobile home page.  In a Use-case approach, most of the content will still be accessible to mobile users, but the design and prioritization of the content may be very different indeed.

This week’s action plan:  Who are your organization’s key stakeholders?  This week, walk in their shoes, but use your smartphone. When you go to your site, is it responsive?  And if the site is responsive, is what you (they) need front and center?  If not, it’s time to re-think your mobile strategy.

Note: The Make It Happen Tipsheet is also available by email. Go to to register.

Randall Craig

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Randall has been advising on Digital Strategy since 1994 when he put the Toronto Star online, the Globe and Mail's GlobeInvestor/Globefund, several financial institutions, and about 100+ other major organizations. He is the author of eight books, including Digital Transformation for Associations, the Everything Guide to Starting an Online Business, and Social Media for Business. He speaks and advises on Digital Transformation, Digital Trust, and Social Media. More at

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