For several years now mobile has been on the rise in terms of it being a reliable device for Internet activities. Perhaps it's been the last three years or so that it's really been at the forefront of many discussions regarding web design and development.

In that time I've experimented a bit and read about the different approaches. Until maybe the last couple of years (at least in my crevasse of a memory) the choices seemed limited. Part of that was due to technology.

For a while - and even still today - many sites would detect what kind of device a user was visiting the site with ("browser sniffing"). There are a few ways to do this but they're not 100% reliable. From a development perspective, that essentially meant having two or more sites. From a client perspective, that meant a serious increase in costs.

But even if browser sniffing was the route chosen by any given site, there's also the additional debate about whether a mobile site should have a way to get to the full site. I'm of the opinion that yes, it should. And it should take you to the exact same page you were on before. Which brings up another issue - two or more URLs for the same piece of content. It happens. And it's no good.

Often when I'm using my Twitter app on my phone, I'll click a link and get directed to a mobile version. Okay, that's fine. It's when I try to copy and paste that link into another app (like email for instance) that it becomes a bit of an annoyance. The URL might look something like this:

m.domain.com/some-cool-article

But not everyone clicking on that link will be doing so on a mobile device.

So what's the solution?

It seems like now the debate is whether to provide mobile users a dedicated but mostly limited experience, or a full site optimized for mobile (i.e., responsive web design)? Its only been in the last 5-6 months that I personally have been leaning toward the responsive design side. It's certainly not perfect - its got plenty of its own issues, including serving full images regardless of device (on a mobile device images can eat up bandwidth limits real quick). But there are workarounds. And as a consumer I'm much more at ease with a site that is the same on mobile as it is on the desktop in terms of content.

Josh Clark said it best in this .net magazine article:

We've all had the experience of going to a website on our phones and getting bumped to the mobile version. It looks great except, wait a minute, they've removed the exact feature or piece of content that I'm looking for. You know the drill: swipe-swipe-swipe, there it is: the "full desktop site" link. And then suddenly you're swimming in this giant design that undoes all the clever thinking that went into the original mobile layout. This is frustrating, it's wasteful of network bandwidth, and it suggests that the business doesn't care about that content.

Clark's solution is to use the technology we have at our disposal (i.e., responsive design, adaptive design, progressive enhancement, etc.) to unify the content experience between desktop and the various flavors of mobile, rather than, as Jacob Nielson has suggested, attempt to create a separate site for every platform.

And I agree with Josh Clark. Because while designing for mobile sure as hell isn't easy, responsive web design is a lot easier than having to build multiple versions of a site. And let's not forget what the differences in options means for clients who are footing the bill. Responsive design is going to cost less than having to iterate five different versions of the same website.

Of course, cost is just one side of the coin. What we need to remember is the user experience. Which translates into how they experience any given site's brand. For clients, this should be just as critical as costs involved.

So for me, the answer, at least for the time being, is what I basically (and perhaps somewhat inaccurately) call a mobile-friendly site. That's a simple way of saying one site using responsive/adaptive web design and progressive enhancement techniques.

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Published on May 14, 2012