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White Paper Summary: Responsive Design vs. Adaptive Design

Back in June, I wrote a blog post about the Opportunity Costs of using Responsive Design with Sitecore.  In that post, I talk about the Pros’ and Cons of using one of our industries hottest buzzwords, Responsive Design (RWD) on a Sitecore implementation.  In my post, I talk about the Device concept of Sitecore which allows for Adaptive Design as opposed to Responsive Design (but in no way prevents Responsive Design from being implemented).  After that post, I had a number of people tell me that they were happy that I presented some of those cons to RWD, as it’s usually just hyped as the latest and greatest idea in our space.  It seems that Sitecore themselves have an opinion on the matter, as they released a white paper entitled Digital Design Shift: From Mobile to MultiChannel about a month ago.  I have to say, I really, really enjoy this white paper too – I think it goes well beyond my blog post (as any well written white paper should) in presenting the pros and cons of RWD and the alternative presented by using the Sitecore devices concept for Adaptive Design.
The paper starts out giving the background on Responsive Design, and some very interesting statistics relating to the “Mobile First” philosophy that is tied to RWD.  The paper describes how RWD is in fact the current darling of web design, pointing out that Mashable even called 2013 the “Year of Responsive Design”.  Of course, that point is followed up by this statement: “While on the surface, RWD is straightforward and simple, in practice, it can rapidly degrade the mobile user experience and create downstream limitations for marketers.”  I think from that statement you should be able to understand the stance of Sitecore – RWD is in fact not the end-all, be-all approach to web design after all.  The paper goes on to talk about Adaptive Design – which is the practice of optimizing the content / presentation a user sees based on their device.  How’s that different from RWD?  While the paper goes into more depth to answer this question, the short of it is that RWD sends all the content / presentation it has to the user’s device and lets the device / client side scripting do the optimization.  Adaptive design detects the device being used at the server level, and then only sends back the optimized presentation details that are required for that device.  If you’re thinking that means less data being transferred over the wire in Adaptive Design vs. RWD, you’d be right on the mark.  You should also then be able to correlate less data being transferred into quicker page loads.  (Dare I say, more “responsive” page loads that result in better performing sites come from Adaptive Design rather than Responsive Design?)  In regards to my own blog post about the pros / cons of RWD, I think this may have been my biggest oversight – I didn’t point out the con that you need to send ALL the presentation details and content to the user when implementing RWD and how that can affect performance.
The whitepaper goes on to explain RWD in more depth without getting overly technical about how it works, and provides situations where you may want to use RWD (small, basic websites and short life spanned websites among others).  This is followed by a description of how Sitecore’s Adaptive Design works and why Sitecore views this as a superior alternative to RWD in most cases, especially considering long term ramifications and marketing-centric capabilities such as channel specific interactions.  The paper concludes by saying that Sitecore users have the ability to use a blended approach of both Responsive Design and Adaptive Design in order to get the best of both worlds.
If you’re a digital marketer, a web designer / developer or just geeky about these things, I would suggest downloading the white paper and giving it a read.  I don’t think you even have to be interested in or using Sitecore to get value out of this white paper, as it’s describing patterns that are not dependent upon Sitecore.  (That said, the Adaptive Design approach described in the paper is certainly Sitecore-centric, and the white paper does describe how Sitecore users benefit from that approach.) It’s a relatively quick read and keeps from getting bogged down in technical terms.  It makes sound arguments, and I think that after reading it, you’ll have a better understanding of what RWD / Adaptive Design patterns are, and some strengths and weaknesses that they have.  My only real complaint about the white paper is that the last section regarding a hybrid approach is too brief.  I think a “best of both worlds” section should’ve been a little more in depth so as to act as a real guide for clients to follow.

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Jamie Stump

My name is Jamie Stump, and I am a Senior Sitecore Consultant at Perficient. I was honored to be named one of only 42 2013 Sitecore MVP’s worldwide. I specialize in Sitecore Architecture and Development and my broad Sitecore experience includes Sitecore installation, configuration and CEP development, including custom DMS implementations for clients. I have implemented Sitecore solutions for a number of industry verticals including manufacturing, healthcare, financial services, advertising and retail. In addition to architecting and implementing Sitecore sites and eCommerce solutions, I also work with other Microsoft Technologies, including the .NET platform and SQL Server. You can read through my older Sitecore related blog posts here and my newer ones here. I graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Information Systems Development from York College of PA. I am originally from the suburbs of Philadelphia, PA, and still reside there with my wife, son, English bulldog and 2 cats.

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