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Mobile Delivery Today - the Role of the Responsive Web Design & Device Detection December 13th, 2011

Mobile is everywhere and rightly so with the emergence of ever more powerful mobile devices capable of delivering mobile experiences that allows profitable means for companies to deliver content and transact with an ever-increasing audience.

With the recent Ofcom research finding that in the UK around 7% of households, or 1.5m of the total 21.3m, use mobile devices exclusively to connect to the internet, and a total of 3.6m, or 17%, used mobile broadband for internet access. These figures should make mobile a consideration for any digital service under development today or in the near future. That combined with the prediction that mobile will outpace desktop based access within three to five years means it needs to be considered sooner rather than later.

Mobile is also a hotly discussed and debated subject in the design and build community particularly with the practice of Responsive Web Design gaining in acceptance and being proved on an ever increasing basis as a real possibility. Responsive Web Design aims to deliver beyond the desktop crafting beautiful designs that anticipate and respond to your users needs by delivering quality experiences to users no matter how large (or small) their display, allowing us to ‘design for the ebb and flow of things.’

As with all things digital Responsive Web Design has its opposition. The concept of device detection, that of redirecting the user to a version of the service ‘optimised’ for mobile use, has been around for many a year and comes with the claim that it simplifies the incredibly ‘complex and difficult’ process of successfully supporting all devices and channels - note the old terminology here.

Devise detection does this ‘redirect’ well and will for services that are mid to end of life likely prove the most cost effective way of delivering content to a mobile or small screen touch device in the cases where mobile delivery was not part of the original scope.

Exponents of Responsive Web Design are skeptical about technology offering ‘redirects’ and the claims that it’s the simplest way forward. Those that have been in this web industry many years will be aware of where the skepticism comes from and may well have the battle scars to prove it.

Browser detection, a practice popular a decade or more ago offered the ability to identify the browser name and version and so deliver content styled and accessible to the browser in question - as long as it was on the list. The practice of ‘code forking’ emerged - or simply put - having to write many instances of the same code to deliver where possible the same functionality to all browsers (those on your current list).

This practice was in no way a ‘simplification’ and leads to increased production costs and maintenance overheads. This practice was, over time, proven to be unworkable as a result of browser manufactures being deliberately misleading by miss-identifying themselves so that they would be considered with the ‘best’ most ‘advanced’ browser of the time.

This ultimately led to the collapse of browser detection which has now been replaced with ‘feature detection’. This is where small javaScript tests carried out on the clients browser verify what is not available for use therefore identifying browsers in an undeniable way. This identification meant very few ‘alternative’ methods were required to deliver comparable experiences reducing costs drastically.

In today’s mobile market the reality is that to deliver consistent experiences both detection and Responsive Web techniques need to be combined to cater for the widest audience possible. This is why Digirati have partnered with Mobile Tech to offer our clients the possibility of creating a successful mobile presence.

By partnering we can segment device capabilities into smaller subsets defined through an understanding of your audiences habits and capabilities. The scope of support becomes apparent during our research phase that will discover who your audience are and what type of device they will (potentially) be accessing your service through. Only by understanding your market and audience through research can you design a suitable desirable experience that’s accessible to the widest possible audience.

The audience question is also something that the device detection camp cites as beneficial, being able to deliver to ‘every’ mobile device ‘globally’. Now this sounds too good to be true, however it may well be accurate and yet is it what you need?

Let’s take this statement in two parts, firstly ‘every mobile device’. This is similar to the requirement of supporting IE6-9, Firefox, Opera and Safari, the last four are relatively simple to support but IE6-8 prove problematic. Not all mobile phones are equal and older ones still in circulation can rarely if ever be ‘upgraded’ to use the latest browser. Like the content only approach for supporting IE6 where little style and even less behaviour are applied to the information presented; should we not restate the ‘every mobile device’ concept to devices capable of rendering CSS layouts? Those that can’t will only get well structured content. Those that can are again subdivided by javaScript capabilities, so at this point we have three groups to cater for which is reasonable. Each group requires the well structured content as a base line so really this can be boiled down to two groups of device: those that can interporate javaScript and those that can’t.

The ‘global’ aspect is slightly different in that unless you are already in a position to distribute your services globally additional costs may result from ‘going global’ be it content translation, regional customer support services or fulfilment requirements. It’s true geographic locations all pose different demands on mobile access and for some markets mobile is already the primary access point, but considering all that needs to be in place to become a global supplier it important to ask the question. ‘Do we have all that’s required in place to support a global customer base?’.

For now we are in a state of transition where device detection is a necessary part in mobile delivery in order to pave the way to cohesive single site solutions that cater for all devices big or small, touch or key. Responsive Web Design should be the founding principle of how your ‘mobile’ platform should be built to stand the test of time.

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