Responsive web design (RWD) is the latest buzzword to hit mobile web design. If you ask anyone about designing for mobile, RWD will be the first thing they mention. Does this mean that the dedicated mobile website is a thing of the past?

The short answer is no, and a recent article on Mashable tackled the question. While the article compares RWD to native app development, the same concepts apply to RWD versus a dedicated website. Their best advice for choosing between the two options was at the top of the article:

The first thing you need to do is forget about buzzwords and lingo and focus on the actual needs of your business.

I agree with this 100% and would take it a step further and say that you need to determine how to best serve not only the needs of your business but also the needs of your customers. In fact, a better question to ask yourself is whether your mobile solution serves the needs of your business, your designers, or your customers.

Too often, designers and engineers focus on optimizing the development to satisfy the business needs (such as time and cost), or their capabilities, without  factoring in how to satisfy the customer needs. The bottom line: if you’re not designing your mobile presence in order to provide a relevant, context-aware solution for your customers, then you’re going to build an under-performing mobile solution.

When we work with our clients, both existing and new, the first thing we like to understand is the experience their customers expect when they access your mobile presence. Why do they want to access your content, product or service on a mobile device? What are actions they will take? What is the goal of the interaction? It’s important to establish use cases and prioritize them so we can work with the client to develop scenarios that we can use to gauge the effectiveness of different mobile user experience and user interface designs.

On top of that, we need to understand what the goals are for your mobile presence. Is to generate visits and traffic? Are repeat users important? What are the calls-to-action you want to generate (phone calls, emails, etc.)? Are you looking to generate leads and conversions? And most of all, what are the metrics that we will use to measure and monitor success? As you already know, anything worth doing is worth measuring.

From there, we can start to focus on business needs like time and budget concerns and have a dialog about what type of solution will work best. It may be a responsive website, a dedicate mobile site, a native app, or a hybrid approach that mixes two or more of these options.

My best advice: don’t ignore RWD, but don’t look at it as your only or best alternative. Another article that appeared in Smashing Magazine recently (a great general web design resource by the way) provided some guidance on building high performance mobile websites. It was a counterpoint to the RWD trend, as they succinctly summarized the limitations of RWD in mobile design

Responsive Web design (RWD) limits the creative process by forcing the same content, navigation and business processes to be presented on every device, irrespective of its physical capabilities.

While there may be some hyperbole in the statement, it’s not that far from the truth. I would temper the statement by saying that RWD is certainly in vogue and one path to generating a mobile presence. It can also be cheaper than developing a dedicated site, but at what cost? There could be impacts to performance depending on the complexity of your site, limitations to functionality by not tapping into mobile device functionality, and hidden costs that cannot be measured such as lost revenue due to poor user engagement.

So beware of those who push RWD as the only solution for mobile. If it’s the only tool in their toolkit, they’ll try to figure out how to use it to solve every problem. It’s like talking to the carpenter who only has a hammer in his toolbox – every problem looks like a nail. The carpenter can eventually build you something using only a hammer, but it may not be exactly what you want, or need for that matter.

The right approach is to analyze the job, determine the desired outcome(s), and select the right set of tools to deliver the best mobile experience to your customers.