On the web, not all websites are created equal. On a mobile device, users can encounter one of the following types of sites:
Mobile-dedicated sites are sites designed specifically for mobile phones. They often live under a separate URL (e.g., m.site.com) and are completely distinct from the full site. They contain features or content that have been deemed appropriate for mobile; frequently, these are just a subset of what is available on the desktop. They are often contrasted with responsive sites, which typically contain the same content and functionality for mobile and desktop, but rearrange these features on mobile.
Web apps are not real applications; they are really websites that may look and feel like native applications, but are not implemented as such. (Our article on different types of apps details the distinctions between web apps and native or hybird apps
Responsive design is a development technique that detects the client type and dynamically adjusts the layout of a site according to the size of the screen on which it is displayed. Thus, the same content may be displayed in a three-column format on a desktop, two-column format on a tablet, and one-column format on a smart-phone.
One of the complaints against mobile-dedicated sites is that they often exclude content and functionality that may prove relevant at least to some users occasionally. Responsive design tackles that objection by striving for content and feature parity across different versions of a site.
In practice responsive design is often a continuum: many responsive sites are not “fully” responsive and do not have a 100% feature or content parity; instead, they do remove functionality that is rarely needed on mobile.
Here are some of the relative advantages and disadvantages of these two approaches.
A final downside to responsive sites is that some companies may think that this implementation technique frees them from considering the usability of both their mobile design and their desktop design. Just because an implementation allows the same code to rewrap and display on many different screen sizes doesn’t mean that the resulting user interfaces will be decent, let alone optimized for use with any given device category.
The main advantage of adaptive design is that it solves the problem of slow response times that often plagues responsive design.
Users sometimes say that they’d rather go to a desktop site than to a mobile site. That’s mostly due to their prior experience with mobile-optimized content: In an attempt to make the content more digestible, some mobile-dedicated sites include only a tiny subset of the full-site offerings on their mobile site. And sometimes people may be so used to the full site that they can use this prior knowledge to figure out their way around on a small screen.
Finally, users occasionally declare that the mobile site is dumbed down: it’s too simple and impoverished. One of our participants was trying to make a reservation on a hotel’s mobile site. The first thing she said when she saw the site was that it was very barebones, and she expected a flashier website from that company (which happened to be a big casino hotel in Las Vegas). However, she was able to finish the reservation quickly. In the end, she came to appreciate the simplicity of the site and was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was for her to complete the task.
The bottom line is: you should not listen to what users say , but rather look at what they do. When people mobile-optimized sites on their mobile devices, they typically are more efficient and more successful. But when you ask them whether they prefer mobile sites, they might tell you otherwise.
In our studies involving phablets, that is phones with screens larger than 5.3 in, the larger screen did enable participants to read better, and also allowed some of them to use desktop site more often and slightly more successfully on mobile. Whereas some of our phablet participants consistently preferred desktop sites, the usability of these sites on the (still small) screen is far from good, and people struggled with small targets as well as with the tiny font.
Overall, while on large-size tablets (I-Pad), full sites work decently and a small number of minor adjustments can make them quite usable, on phablets they remain very much a strain. For this reason, we don’t recommend that you send your phablet users to your desktop site.