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Responsive Web Design for Internet Retailers

A new way of designing websites makes it more likely that your site will display accurately no matter whether you’re viewing it on a computer, a tablet, or a smartphone. We talk to one of the leaders of this movement. By Jimmy Guterman

In the early days of the web, designers of Internet retailing sites often had to design multiple versions of websites. Each browser rendered text differently. Without multiple designs, vendors couldn’t be sure that potential customers could use their sites. The development of standards reduced that problem considerably, but in recent years, with the proliferation of web-enabled smartphones, tablets, and customized devices – as well as apps intended for each of those new platforms – it’s getting harder to make sure that a site will work everywhere. And the last thing Internet retailers on tight budgets want to do is pay a web designer for doing the same work twice or three times.

Sometimes an ecommerce site does need to be customized for some platforms and not for others. For example, it makes sense for a site that sells Android apps to work on Android phones; it doesn’t make sense to redesign it to work on a Blackberry or an iPad. But most of the time Internet retailers want to make it as easy as possible for their customers and want their transactions to occur directly in a web browser. Customers want that too, apparently: A study released earlier this month by Nielsen Wire finds that, even on tablets and phones, people prefer to shop on websites, not apps. So how will retailers meet customers on mobile platforms without rebuilding their sites from scratch so they work on smaller, different-shaped screens?

Enter responsive web design. The term was coined by designer Ethan Marcotte, who uses the term to describe websites that are designed and coded once, but are built in a manner that allows them to flow clearly on devices of all shapes and sizes. The best thing about this is that it doesn’t require learning a slew of new technologies, just the basic building blocks of the web – HTML (particularly HTML5), CSS, and Javascript.

David Sleight runs Stuntbox, a design and usability experience consultancy based in Brooklyn. He’s among the leading proponents of responsive web design and we spoke to him about how businesses can take advantage of responsive web design.

It must be more work making a site truly responsive. Is it more expensive for Internet retailers to build a responsive website than a regular one?

Over the past year, responsive has become the intelligent default for building a new website. Responsive requires a little more cost upfront, but that slight increase upfront saves a lot of money to support endless platforms. Responsive avoids a lot of downstream costs. There’s no reason for a small business to commission a separate mobile site when it can do responsive design and get it all done once.

You say a little more cost upfront. How much more should Internet retailers estimate?

About 15%. For that, you can have a site that will work in multiple sizes, including some that aren’t here yet. Using responsive design, you’ll be prepared for all sorts of devices. You don't have to know in advance what device people will be using to get to your site.

Are there any instances in which a responsive site is not what an Internet retailer might want?

Some companies do want a stripped-down site, but that’s going away, and it’s not ecommerce sites that want that. Think of the web as a baseline, a starting point. For a finite investment, you can guarantee that your site will work on the broadest range of devices, in the broadest range of places.

Sometimes you do have to build an app for a specific platform. That’s when you want the site or the store to do things that only a platform app can do. For example, if you want to run something on the iPhone that integrates with the Notification Center, you can only do that in an app. Websites can’t do that, at least not yet. But those are specialized situations. If you start with the web first, you can use responsive and be sure that you can be everywhere.

About the author

Jimmy Guterman president of The Vineyard Group; previously he was senior editor of Harvard Business Review.

Jimmy Guterman

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of FedEx.