Josh Clark's "Seven Deadly Mobile Myths" talk (video! and slides!) makes a resounding argument that the web should not be fragmented into alternative experiences like the "mobile web", "tablet web" or "desktop web", but that the challenge should be to shape one web, and progressively enhance when the opportunity arises based on a device's features.
The most effective approach for this reality is to build responsively. Before we go to far into why defaulting to responsive works so well, it's important to point out that responsive is an approach, not an end-goal. The goal isn't responsive, the goal is a fantastic web experience. What endures on a website is the content. Design the content better and we'll be prepared to move quicker and anticipate changes in the future. Presentation gets out of date fast, but ideas last.
Drawing by Paul Downey, advocating for internet accessibility.
Let's synthesize Clark's point along with a couple other perspectives:
Mobile users are tough to pin down
It is not practical to predict the context a mobile user is in. In the recent past what's been thought of as "on-the-go", is really anywhere with an internet connection. The idea that a person is hurried while their on their phone is not a valid assumption. Mobile users could be relaxing while watching TV or in the middle of a prolonged bout of traveling or commuting. Clark makes the point that 40% of people use their phones in the bathroom (and that's only the number of people who admit to it). Mobile isn't a tag-a-long companion to some other authentic experience. For many, this is the only experience they will have with a website.
The only valid assumption that those making websites can have about their mobile audience is that the user will be looking at the site on a small screen.
Andy Hume's "Responsive by default" article builds on this argument, making the point that responsive design is the closest thing the web has to future-proofing a website:
Optimising for One Web, instead of specific browsers/devices/individuals, is an ideal that is a profound part of being a web developer. It has to be at the heart of everything you design and build. If not, you're doomed to write code and support an ever increasing array of client platforms from whatever the browser landscape throws at you in the coming years. Good luck with that.
Here, the W3C further explains the phrase, "One Web":
One Web means making, as far as is reasonable, the same information and services available to users irrespective of the device they are using. However, it does not mean that exactly the same information is available in exactly the same representation across all devices. The context of mobile use, device capability variations, bandwidth issues and mobile network capabilities all affect the representation. Furthermore, some services and information are more suitable for and targeted at particular user contexts.
It takes a lot of effort to achieve simplicity
Clark points out that "Complexity is about richness of experience, whereas complications are the difficulty of presenting that experience." It's best to manage complexity through give and take. Starting with a small screen is hard, it makes you do better thinking on where your priorities lie when problem-solving.
Furthermore, sites are faster now than when the "mobile web" first emerged. We've figured out advanced caching, network latency isn't as big of an issue. The process of more actions is more pleasing because every screen has its own focus. This invites conversation and its how we learn. Another term for this is, progressive disclosure. This approach helps uncomplicate complexity on the small screen and offers information in smaller chunks. Focus on the relevant content or primary task and push secondary tasks off to other screens. Creating a guided experience can offer up a more complete narrative and a richer experience overall.
Tap quantity isn't nearly as important as tap quality. Don't fret about putting some features another tap away. Clarity trumps density.— Josh Clark (@globalmoxie) July 20, 2010
Mobile is packed with features, that allow you to do more. Phones have cameras, geolocation and accelerometers! Stop thinking about mobile content, you're probably going to guess wrong about what users want there. Think about what can this device do with the content.
Devices are not market segments
You need a great mobile experience, not a separate mobile website. Think about how voice/speech, accessibility, soon TV (even now TV, with Chromecast allowing stronger adoption than SmartTVs) can be enhanced to suit different devices. You can really disappoint a user by stripping out functionality. At the same time, it's important not to be dogmatic, sometimes there are business, organizational, political or technical reasons that can effect the underpinnings of a decision.
One key is to build content-out, not container-in. Mainstream expectation that content will sync and follow us from device to device like cloud-syncing you get from your Google account or watching a movie on Netflix.
In 2010, Jeremy Keith wrote, "it’s clear that universal design is a more inclusive, more maintainable approach. I hope that the current ghettoisation of mobile users will also end."
Four years later, universal design is a reality. Sure, mobile users still get the shaft a lot of the time...
And there's still a lot of work to be done but to look at what was imagine in the recent past and what's been accomplished since then is truly amazing. How can you help but be excited by what's to come?