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Is responsive Web design the answer to cross-platform development?

ThoughtWorks’ Scott Shaw says responsive Web design can save money, but it’s not a “build it once” solution to building mobile apps across multiple platforms.

Responsive Web design is an emerging trend where applications and websites are designed for optimal viewing across multiple devices and screen sizes using a single code base. But will it fix Web application problems in today's mobile world?

Scott Shaw, head of technology at ThoughtWorks Australia, told CIO Australia that he is “wary” about the idea of a ‘one size fits all’ design approach to creating an optimal Web experience that is consistent across multiple platforms.

“If responsive Web design becomes another word for ‘build it once via some kind of magic platform and have it translated into a number of different devices’ then I think that’s not right,” he said.

“People are anxious to create an application that can be offered both on Android and iOS app stores very quickly… If you really want to optimise the experience say on an iPhone or an iPad then you’ve got to be able to use the native controls when necessary. Don’t be lulled into the promise of cross platform mobile development, it doesn’t come for free.”

Cost benefit versus native app benefit

Shaw acknowledged that responsive Web design can be a less expensive solution to building optimised apps across multiple devices compared to building native apps.

“Responsive Web design probably can save people a lot of money in the long run because you’re no longer maintaining two separate versions of the app. It means you’ve built the application to firstly [make it] accessible on mobiles and then enhance it and allow [it] to adapt as necessary to the device,” he said.

However, he cautions to not only look at the benefits from a cost perspective as responsive Web design can limit users from being able to use the media and location awareness functions of a native app.

He said organisations will need to determine what users will want most from the application before deciding on whether to build a native app or not. “Whether you choose to create a HTML5 Web app or a native app should really be driven by more the sort of features you want to offer the customer,” he said.

Being responsive in design

To really be ‘responsive’ in design, Shaw suggested building Web applications around users’ feedback rather than jumping straight into detail as this will help create a more optimal user experience over time.

“Combine design and development in a really iterative fashion,” he said. “In order to really take advantage of the mobile channel, it’s important to take an iterative approach and get a minimal application out to the public, get the feedback, and respond to that feedback and evolve the application over time.”

He advised developers to focus on making the application as simple to use, and accessible as possible. He said this may be a basic concept in design but it is applicable for both Web and mobile, and is the best approach to achieving optimisation across multiple devices.

“I think you can choose to build a simple application that pays a lot of attention to giving the user the information they need upfront and minimising the amount of clicks or hurdles that they have to go through to get to the things that are more important to them,” he said.

“That experience design is no different on the Web than it is on mobile devices. So paying attention to that and building a mobile Web application that serves a number of different devices but is simple and straight forward as possible is probably the best way to go if you want to optimise across a number of devices.”

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