Why Responsive Design Fails

February 17th, 2021

Here’s the sad truth: responsive design, however well intentioned, often fails.

Why? Because designers (and the clients who employ them) forget that responsive design isn’t just a technical exercise, but a different way of thinking about the web as a space.


Desktop Buzzkill


Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: you open a webpage on your phone, only to be greeted by what is clearly a desktop-intended viewing experience. Sometimes, the site is actually responsive—just poorly conceived for mobile users.

We’ve been in meetings that led to this kind of result, and the justification on offer is usually the same: “well, some people will just have to pinch and zoom. They can’t expect to get the same content on mobile.

Problem is, most users do expect the same content: one study suggests that 72% of mobile and tablet users expect a consistent experience regardless of device. Other research suggests that when mobile users don’t find what they want, a third of them will simply give up on that brand and never return to the site.

If you’re in the ecommerce business, these trends should be especially noteworthy: mobile commerce now represents the majority of ecommerce, with experts predicting it will account for as much as 72% by 2019.


Kia’s desktop site is jam-packed with content, but looks what happens on mobile…


Content is dramatically pared down on the mobile homepage. On the menu screen, many of the options lie within additional submenus that require loading a separate page.


A Different Way of Thinking


Responsive design bloomed in reaction to a proliferation of screens, and an explosion of screen time. But good responsive design is more than its technical ingredients. Ethan Marcotte, who literally wrote the book on the subject, knew as much when he said it “requires a different way of thinking.”

This “different way of thinking” isn’t desktop-centric, or even mobile-centric (though it may be useful to think mobile first), but rather consistency-centric. It means believing that an incomplete or subpar mobile experience is a broken experience, and as fundamental a problem as a blatant typo.

Unsurprisingly, it’s far easier to give your website a makeover than to alter your entire web content philosophy.

A responsive example from the Patient Expectation Project, which we recently designed.

Responsive in the Future


Responsive design is now, and will continue to be, more important than ever from a user experience perspective. The variety of devices and web browsers in use is only likely to increase, along with the variety of ways users will reach, engage with, and convert on your site.

As you go boldly into this new web, you will face challenges that even the slickest responsive website won’t solve for you if your design philosophy isn’t appropriately aligned. Make sure your “way of thinking” keeps pace.

Transformation starts with conversation.