Responsive Web Design: Standard or Feature?


Web design is a flexible, consistently evolving medium. There are a variety of different ways to accomplish the same goal; there are always new techniques and best practices on the horizon; web design projects can range from the tiny (one-page websites) to the huge (multi-page CMS-powered websites). Any web design freelancer or web design firm knows the range of features, and their corresponding costs, that can be built into their projects – dynamic content, jQuery effects, advanced layouts, etc – and the question of what should be a standard vs. what should be a feature is constantly evolving too.


With all that in mind, the newest web design technique on the block is responsive web design. If you’re not clear on what responsive web design means, read this article. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Alright, now that you’re back, let’s get to the million-dollar question that I was discussing with some fellow nerdy web friends over beers: should responsive web design be a standard for your web design business, or should it be a feature that can be added on (like power windows in a car)? Let’s explore the arguments.

Argument: It Should be a Standard

The main argument for “Responsive web design should be a standard” – aka every site you or your business builds from here on out should be responsive – is that it seems to be, without question, the way the industry is heading. The amount of web-powered devices out there, and their specs, is almost impossible to count. There are iOS devices, sure, but there’s also a litany of tablets and smartphones powered by Android with a myriad of screen sizes and resolutions, there are also many brands like the MyTrendyPhone which provides trendy accessories to all devices. With that in mind, we can’t realistically serve up a completely different version of a website based on detecting the OS or browser anymore; responsive design allows us to detect the browser viewport window and serve up a modified layout based off of one website design. By and large, responsive design seems like the only realistic way at present to manage the huge range of devices, users and browsers accessing the web.

So if responsive design is the way of the future – and for the sake of argument, let’s say it is – shouldn’t we start building every site this way? Shouldn’t we strive to stay on top of the trends? Shouldn’t we be future-proofing our builds for our clients? Shouldn’t we be taking responsibility, as web professionals, to serve up the best user experience possible on every device and browser? Those are good questions that form a good argument; one that’s hard to refute.

Now let me try to do just that.

Argument: It Should be a Feature

Yes, people are accessing the internet in ways like never before: on desktops with huge monitors, on netbooks, on ten-inch tablets, on seven-inch tablets, on four-and-a-half inch smartphones. This boom in tech is why responsive design has emerged.

But with that boom in tech has come some amazing mobile browsers; any well-designed, non-responsive site looks great in mobile Safari. Yes, you have to double-tap and zoom in. Yes, it serves up content that, in some cases, is useless and weighty to user on a mobile device. A nicely designed, non-responsive site isn’t the best user experience by any means, but I would put forth that it isn’t a bad user experience either.

On top of that, designing, building and testing a responsive site takes considerably longer than doing the same for a static site. Fluid layouts means more layout break points; serving up specific layouts to specific devices (eg. desktop browser, tablet in portrait mode, smartphone) means more wireframes, more mockups, and more testing. Using advanced web design techniques – the foundation of responsive web design is the CSS3 media query declaration – means even more testing and problem-solving on older browsers. Yes, responsive design takes much more time, and we didn’t even touch on maintenance or dealing with a client-handled CMS.

We all know that, in the web design/development world, time = money. If you make responsive web design a standard for your business, you have to raise your prices to reflect all the additional time a responsive site takes over a static one. Depending on where you sit in your market, raising your prices may push you into a different range of client; perhaps a range you’d prefer not to be in. It may also push you out of the market altogether. This is the strongest argument against responsive as a standard.

So maybe responsive web design should be a feature. Maybe you don’t want your prices to push you into the next range of client, or out of your market. Maybe it’s something you don’t have the means to take on for every client, based on your workload. Maybe responsive web design is something you articulate the benefits & drawbacks of, offer it as a feature for $XXXX more dollars to your client, and let them make the decision based on their budget, business needs and website goals. By making responsive web design a standard, instead of a feature, you take the ability to choose out of your clients hands.

Pros & Cons

Let’s break down my rambling into digestible points.

Responsive Design as a Standard: Pros

  • you are offering the most up-to-date web design/development practices available
  • the sites you build are going to look amazing on virtually any platform
  • you may get a potential leg-up on your competition
  • you may make more money on less projects

Responsive Design as a Standard: Cons

  • you might price yourself out of your market/current range of client
  • you will have to take on fewer projects to accommodate for longer project lengths

Responsive Design as a Feature: Pros

  • you are offering your clients choice
  • you have an overall shorter development cycle (on average, accounting for non-responsive sites)
  • you don’t risk pricing yourself out of the market

Responsive Design as a Feature: Cons

  • you are offering your clients choice (yes, this is both pro & con)
  • you may rarely build responsive sites, and thus fall behind technically
  • you may end up doing more projects at a lower per-project cost

I’m sure I’ve missed some here and there (feel free to throw in your two cents in the comments), but I feel like that’s an alright summary of the pros and cons of each path. It’s important to not only look at how many pros and cons are there for each, but also to weigh each pro and each con. For example, offering the most advanced dev techniques out there is a huge pro. But pricing yourself out of your market is a devastating con.

The Answer

….is “I don’t know”. Or to be more specific, “it’s up to you” – I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. I know that Paper Leaf, at present, is offering responsive web design as a feature, not a standard. The main reason? We don’t want to raise our base prices to the extent required to compensate for the additional time responsive web design takes. We make a point to clearly articulate the fact that responsive web design is the way of the future, a better choice, etc to our clients, but ultimately we leave the decision up to them. A custom website is a big investment as-is. Some people take the responsive route, some don’t. Perhaps at some point in the future, however, responsive website design will be a built-in feature for us.

What are your thoughts? Responsive design: standard or feature?

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