Myths and Realities of Responsive Design and the Mobile Inbox

  |  November 19, 2013   |  Comments

Have you heard the often misused terms of "responsive design," "adaptive design," and "mobile first?" Columnist Jim Davidson explains these buzzy, thrown around terms.

jimdavidsonnovThe first few lines of this article will be buzzy and may cause your eyes to roll, but I'm here to take some of the panic and confusion away from what has become a much discussed topic for email marketers: responsive design and the mobile inbox.

You have probably seen the stats from Litmus that nearly half of all emails (48 percent) are currently opened on a mobile device. Custora reports that mobile e-commerce purchases increased by 48 percent on Black Friday and 30 percent on Cyber Monday. Put those two things together and it's clear to see that your subscribers need to receive email messages that are engaging, functional and visually appealing on their mobile devices.

Enter the often misused terms of "responsive design," "adaptive design," and "mobile first." These buzzy, thrown around terms are not synonymous, though they share a common goal of providing mobile device users with an experience that works for their specific device or devices.

Since this article is focused on email, I'm going to immediately throw out two of these terms: adaptive design and mobile-first. One is technically impossible when it comes to email and the other simply doesn't apply. Care to make a guess before we continue?

Let's start with the one that does not apply: mobile first. What distinguishes this term from the others is that it's a concept of developing content and not a method of actually producing it. Taking a mobile-first approach would mean the marketer develops a site or email by thinking of the content first rather than elements like navigation, images, composition, color palette, etc. This content will gradually start to shape how the site or email will evolve into a fully designed version. A mobile-first approach helps the marketer determine what content matters most and which experience should be developed for various devices. You can definitely take a mobile first approach to email content development but, again, this is just a concept for content development, not producing it so it's worth distinguishing from the other terms.

Next to kick off the list is adaptive design. Adaptive design is extremely powerful, flexible and used by many top retailers... for websites. A recent study of ours found that two-thirds of brands are delivering adaptive sites to Android and iPhone users. To understand how it works, imagine a dialogue between a person/device they're using and the website:

Person: "I want to see your site."
Site: "OK. What device are you using?"
Person: "An iPhone with Safari and JavaScript enabled."
Site: "Cool. Here's the version of our site we send to iPhones with Safari and JavaScript enabled."

While this means multiple versions of a site must be designed and maintained, the marketer has greater control over how their site will be presented. However, the back-and-forth dialogue between the device and the site can't technically happen in the inbox.

That leaves us with responsive design. Here's how responsive design works, gain using the dialogue scenario:

Person: "I want to see your site."
Site: "OK. Here it is. Do what you want with it."

The device then processes and displays the content based on variables such as device screen width, resolution and operating system. This is very different from the two-way dialogue seen in adaptive design. The responsive design version of the site sent to the person is coded to tell the device what should be expanded, contracted, removed, rearranged and/or resized and how to do it. An email that is coded using responsive design methods benefits in the same way. All of this means that regardless of the device, screen size, inbox, browser, etc., the device will try to make the content a perfect fit.

So, is this the mobile-magic solution to provide consistent, engaging, functional and visually captivating emails?

Responsive design certainly isn't "magic" or a cure-all solution, but it can be a useful tool for marketers to meet the evolving expectations of today's device-hopping shoppers and it's definitely something you should start testing. It's important to remember there are many ways to design and code an engaging, functional and captivating static email without using responsive design. Responsive design goes a step further by enabling content to be presented in different ways based on the device, ensuring that the hard work you put into campaign creation and design has its intended impact on your audience regardless of the device they're using to open emails.

Design and coding changes will need to be made, so both your marketing and design teams must be involved when implementing responsive design. For both groups, it's important to remember that the luxury of using a specific version of a site based on a person's device, as illustrated by the adaptive design dialog above, is not available with responsive design sites and emails.

This means that various combinations of devices, mobile email clients, apps, mobile browsers, operating systems, etc., will result in an infinite number of ways the email may be rendered. A comprehensive test of the most popular ISP, ESPs, devices and operating systems is recommended before launching your first responsive design to ensure that the email "responds" in an acceptable fashion. The rather primitive HTML used for most emails has been consistent over the years, but changes to device operating systems and new app versions can lead to dependable responsive design practices getting thrown for a loop. Frequent testing is recommended especially if there is a shift in the mobile device landscape.

It may seem like a steep learning curve and a lot of hard work, but in reality, the barrier for getting started isn't that high. Even if you feel your subscribers are not the most active mobile openers now, as device adoption continues to increase to the point of multi-device saturation and "new ways to shop" become old hat, you will need to be the brand your customers can trust for a seamless experience in the inbox across all of their devices.

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Jim Davidson

As an expert in email, mobile, and social strategies, Jim brings 15 years of experience in online marketing, managing email and cross-channel programs for top retail clients. From strategic vision to implementation, Jim has led clients to successfully meet aggressive revenue and performance goals. As Bronto's head of research, he regularly publishes industry-focused white papers, research reports, and contributes to the Bronto Blog.

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