Virtually every business needs a website, but these days the web isn't just about what you see on a computer screen. People are using the internet on an increasingly diverse array of devices, from smartphones to gaming consoles. Some experts predict that by 2014, most web traffic in the U.S. will be on mobile devices.
The trouble is, most business websites are still designed with only a desktop or laptop computer in mind. When you view a typical business website on the browser of mobile device, it usually requires pinching, zooming and scrolling just to see what's on the page. And interacting with the site via a touchscreen can be clumsy at best.
To compensate, more businesses are deploying one or more mobile-optimized web designs, or "themes," that the web server sends to a user when a mobile device is detected. That's a first step, but mobile devices come in many sizes and shapes. What looks great on, say, an iPhone may look and perform poorly on a Kindle Fire.
It is possible to create designs for each of the major screen sizes and devices types, but ultimately that's a losing game. New device types will outpace any designer's ability to spin off customized themes.
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One solution is something called "responsive web design," which can make your website easier and cheaper to manage, while giving mobile users a better experience. This allows you to create one design that will fit almost any screen and device type, and can also enhance your search visibility. Additionally, it avoids the hurdle of expecting users to type in "m." before your site URL to access the mobile-friendly version.
When a user accesses a responsively designed website, the site senses the constraints of that user's device and automatically "responds" or reconfigures itself to display and function reasonably well. It reorganizes the layout, for instance, swapping out images and navigation features.
As new web-enabled device types become popular, such as Android-powered cameras, you'll only need to tweak your responsive design to accommodate them.
To create a responsive site for your business, you can either hire a designer or use a site-building tool that supports responsive web design. Either way, these five tips can help you make the switch to responsive design.
1. Decide when to make the change.
Responsive design is a radically different way of managing the elements of a website, which means it's hard to introduce responsive design to an existing conventional website. You'll probably want to wait until you're creating a new site or rebuilding your existing one.
2. Track your mobile traffic patterns.
Check your site statistics for the number of mobile visitors, plot how that segment of your online market has been growing and project it two to five years into the future. The steeper that growth curve, the more important it is to implement responsive web design sooner rather than later.
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3. Check out competitors' sites on various devices.
Keep a list of URLs for businesses similar to yours. Periodically check them all out on a variety of computers, smartphones and tablets. Which are easiest to navigate and use, requiring the least pinching, zooming and scrolling? Use the best as guidance for your designer.
4. Hire web designers with responsive design experience.
Many designers serving small-to-medium business clients are still focused on designing sites intended for viewing on computers. Be sure to ask for recent examples of a designer's responsively designed sites. Don't just get screenshots -- ask for the URLs and check those sites on a variety of device types, paying attention both to how they look and how well they function.
5. Use effective, affordable tools if you do it yourself.
If you decide to create a responsively designed site on your own, consider trying the latest version of Squarespace. It's an inexpensive web hosting service that lets you create a responsive website via a drag-and-drop interface.
There are also many pre-made responsive themes (both free and paid, usually between $30 and $100) for sites built with WordPress, a popular open-source platform. The hosted version of that platform, WordPress.com, is starting to offer responsive themes, as well.
Related: How to Create a Killer Mobile Site