Turning Off Responsive Design

In the bad old days of just four years ago it was pretty common for mobile users to get shunted off to some half-baked, feature-deprived “mobile” version of the website they were trying to visit. This misguided practice was common (and annoying) enough that even today Chrome for Android and other mobile web browsers ship with a feature that allows users to “request desktop site.”

To make that feature work Chrome for Android changes its user agent string. Any site that uses user agent strings to redirect mobile users will no longer because to redirect them and the desktop version is displayed.

Responsive websites don’t rely on user agent strings though. Instead they adapt to screen size based on CSS media queries so even if a user has the option for desktop sites checked in Chrome they still won’t get the “desktop” site (of course with responsive sites there really is no desktop site, just a desktop layout).

Provided your responsive designs are good, this isn’t a problem (and if they aren’t then you have bigger problems). However, Opera web standards evangelist Bruce Lawson raises an interesting edge case: what about users that have never seen the mobile layout and are disoriented when they do? If you were expecting, say, the desktop layout of the BostonGlobe.com and instead saw the mobile layout for the first time you might be understandably confused. Here’s what Lawson has to say:

My reason for wondering [about turning off responsive design] is watching my dad use his Xmas Android phone and seeing his puzzlement that some sites look completely different on that device. Non-RWD sites loaded the layout he was familiar with — the desktop layout — which meant he could verify he was on the right site, he knew where in the layout the content he wanted was, and then scroll and zoom to it. When a site looked radically different, he’d check the URL bar to ensure that he’d typed in the right address. In short, he found RWD to be confusing and it meant he didn’t trust the site – no way would he buy anything from these sites.

The first thing to note is that this isn’t a problem unique to responsive sites. The same thing would crop up with a separate mobile experience. The difference is the inability to opt out of the responsive layout. An edge case? Sure, but Lawson isn’t alone in wondering about turning off responsive designs. CSS guru Chris Coyier tackled that very question last year, writing:

Why don’t we see opt-out responsive design? My guess is two-fold:

  1. It’s a bit technically challenging to implement and there aren’t a lot of precedents.
  2. It’s admitting you didn’t do a very good job on the responsive design.

The latter likely being the bigger factor. Like: why are we creating this responsive design at all if we aren’t sure it’s a better experience?

I would agree with both points, but clearly there are at least a few edge cases where offering an option to turn off responsive design might be a good idea. Of course it may not be worth worrying about the edge case of unfamiliar visitors — that’s the sort of decision you can only really make by looking at your own visitors and doing your own testing.

If you actually want to try it, Coyier has some ideas on how to go about creating an option to opt out of a responsive design.