Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Failure of Responsive Design is Why Facebook's IPO Tanked

The Venture Beat article as viewed through a mobile browser.Stuck for ideas for an article? Did you hear that Facebook's IPO isn't netting them enough billions of dollars and so is referred to as a failure? Have you heard about the hot new technique for making generic sites mobile-friendly? Need to get people to click through to your article regardless of its content, requiring some sort of link-bait headline?

This seems to be the recipe for disaster that VentureBeat mixed up for its article What's next for mobile now that adaptive design has failed?, written by the CTO of CBS Interactive. What's so awful is that anyone who uses Facebook both on a mobile device and on a computer can debunk the article almost immediately. Let's recap some points from the article:

Like many other engineering-led cultures, Facebook has embraced adaptive design, also known as responsive design, where essentially the same code can render itself down from a desktop browser to a tablet to a diminutive mobile screen.

This isn't even close to true. Facebook does not use the same front-end code (HTML, CSS, JavaScript, images) to power my experience on my phone as it does the experience on my desktop. I know this because I have to jump from one platform to another to perform some functions only available in one experience. I don't even have to view-source to know this.

[W]hen a full size web page is adapted down to a mobile form factor, it forces a lot of vertical scrolling — even if some components are removed and others are made smaller.

I thought we had debunked the resistance to scrolling. Even though we've known this for years on the desktop, users on mobile can scroll. If anything mobile users have had to scroll far more than desktop users for as long as they've been surfing.

[P]ublishers should embrace swiping. Users are not perturbed at all to see a full page interstitial ad stuck into the mix while paging through content, making the tablet extremely monetizable.

Here the argument against responsive design is clear — scrolling doesn't give sites the opportunity to stuff as many advertisements into content. Sites cannot monetize as easily with responsive web design as they can with interstitial ads in a swipe model. Except this has nothing to do with the technical merits of responsive design, just with a potential revenue source.

After a flood of comments, the author responds with this:

The point of this article is on the limited monetization potential of selling the same experience across different devices.

I propose then that title shouldn't be What's next for mobile now that adaptive design has failed?, but instead could be Limited Monetization Potential of Same Experience on Different Devices. It's not likely to garner any clicks for its headline, but at least the author wouldn't have to endure a public flogging.

Blaming a development technique for a business case failure is silly. Responsive design is just a way to achieve an objective, not a business case itself. Blaming a technique or technology for a business case failure is the same as trying to apply the same hammer to multiple nails (to quote the article).

Using Facebook in the article as a reference point is technically flawed and cashing in on its recent headline domination. It's the kind of article I am obligated to address here so I can put a stake in the ground when clients and partners see this kind of headline percolate up into their view, otherwise forcing me to disassemble it time and again.

Speaking of flogging (I was, a couple paragraphs ago), when I drafted this up last night I had not seen that so many others had written up their own responses. I include links to a couple others for your enjoyment:

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