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What small business owners should know about 'responsive web design'

By Tasha Cunningham

TashaIf you’re a small business owner thinking about giving your existing website a new look in 2013, you need to know about an emerging trend known as responsive Web design. The term was coined by Web developer Ethan Marcotte who wrote about the concept in 2011. Essentially, responsive Web design is an approach to designing a website that responds to a user’s behavior based on screen size and platform. With responsive Web design, when someone visits a URL, the site detects the device being used and adjusts itself accordingly for optimal viewing.

 While Web designers have built mobile versions of websites in the past that could be viewed on smartphones, tablets and other devices, there is a paradigm shift of sorts that major brands are now embracing. Starbucks, Grey Goose and even President Obama have websites that embrace the three tenets of responsive Web design: fluid grids, flexible images and CSS3 media inquiries to detect screen resolution. CSS stands for Cascading Style Sheet, which is a programming language that governs how a Web page looks in a browser.

 Designers who like responsive Web design use fluid grids to lay out a site’s pages. These fluid grids allow the site to be easily viewed on a variety of screens and devices. Flexible images are those that are automatically resized to be viewed on any mobile device. CSS3 media inquiries let the presentation of content be tailored to a range of devices without having to change the content itself.

You might be thinking that your current website is just fine. And it may be, but you should consider that having a website that adapts itself automatically will enhance the experience consumers have when they visit your site. In addition, the number of people who shift their use of the Internet from desktops to mobile devices is predicted to increase rapidly by 2015.

There were 800 million mobile Internet users in 2009, according to comScore. That number is predicted to grow to more than 1.9 billion by 2015. Internet viewing on desktops, by comparison, hasn’t really grown that much. In 2009, comScore reports, there were 1.4 billion people who used their desktops to view the Internet. That number is predicted to grow to just over 1.6 billion by 2015. According to a 2012 TechCrunch survey, 2013 is the year that mobile devices will overtake desktops as the dominant Internet platform globally.

But responsive Web design isn’t for everyone. Many banks and other businesses that offer mobile apps to sell their products and services don’t use it because responsive Web design often limits the types of things you can do on a website. A popular example is a mobile banking app that allows you to deposit a check by taking a picture of it. The application that creates that ability for customers is complicated and often can’t fit into a grid layout.

 In a recent article for Forbes.com, Carin van Vuuren, chief marketing officer at Usablenet, a New York-based firm that designs mobile solutions for major brands, noted that responsive Web design works well for sites where users consume content in sources like magazines and newspapers. But it doesn’t work well if you want your customer to interact with your content because of the complexity of mobile applications for making a purchase.

Another important thing to consider is the potential problems with load times on responsive design sites. However, delivering content on responsive sites could potentially turn users off. For instance, if you’re trying to deliver complex functions, such as buying a product or service using common, but cumbersome programming languages like CSS, JavaScript, or Personal Home Page (PHP), the pages will be complex and heavy with code.

The experience on a smartphone or other mobile device will be much slower than if you tried to make the same purchase on the same site from your desktop. The time it takes a page to load has a dramatic effect on a customer’s experience and whether they will do business with you again. As a small business owner, knowing that consumers are moving toward mobile devices to make purchases, you’ve got to weigh the pros and cons of responsive Web design against the type of customer experience you want to deliver.

Do you want to explore whether responsive web design is for you? Check out www.BizBytes101.com

Tasha Cunningham is a columnist for the Miami Herald's Business Monday section.