Responsive Design… Speed is the Achilles’ Heel for Higher Education Sites

Responsive Design is often a slow solution for a mobile presence

The last week or two I’ve been reading a book on responsive design by Tim Kadlec (Implementing Responsive Design) that was recommended by Gene Lewis, creative director at Digital Pulp. Kadlec makes a key point that others do as well: when planning for a responsive design website, it is best to start with a “mobile first” approach rather than work down to a mobile presence from an existing site created for desktop viewing.
How many colleges and universities actually take a “mobile first” approach? 
I suspect that most responsive design websites in higher education try to work closely with the original site and adapt it to small screen viewing. The challenge of serious content removal to reduce the original website (bloated from content added over the last 15 or 20 years) often is ignored. 
And the even more immediate challenge of removing content items from the home page? From the home pages I’ve reviewed, that’s a political issue that many people are happy to avoid.
Most “mobile” websites are faster than most Responsive Design websites
The result? Most responsive design home pages I’ve tested over the last few days do not download to a smartphone nearly as fast as a mobile website. From a marketing perspective, that’s important. Speed counts. If your mobile presence works much faster than those of your competitors you’ll have a distinct competitive advantage. People like speed. People expect speed. .
Let’s get specific. 
  • The fastest mobile website I tested using Mobitest (St. Mary’s University) downloaded in 1.8 seconds. Close behind was Seton Hall University at 1.88 seconds. The fastest responsive design site (UC-San Diego) took 5.05 seconds to load. The University of Vermont was second at 5.37 seconds.
  • The slowest mobile site was 7.08 seconds. The slowest responsive design site was 21.2 seconds.
It isn’t the size of the university at work here. The University of Virginia mobile home page loads in 2.26 seconds. It’s the size of the home page. Mobile sites have fewer elements on the “mobile” home page. That’s the benefit of a “mobile first” approach. It forces people to deal with the need for a much lighter web presence. 
The results were not absolute. Some mobile sites were slower than the fastest responsive design sites. And that’s exactly the point. Responsive design will work best when content reduction is an important element in the initial plan. No magic responsive design star dust will make a large, cumbersome “traditional” website work fast on a smartphone.
Can the quest for speed on a responsive design website be a catalyst for serious content reduction? Let’s hope so. When that happens, the web experience on screens of any size will improve dramatically.
J.Boye Web & Intranet Conference May 7-9
I was reading Kadlec’s book as the starting place for my responsive design presentation in the “Going Mobile” track at the J.Boye Web & Intranet Conference. Join us there for a lively discussion of how much speed counts in the mobile world.
My 2-day “Writing Right for the Web” Workshop… for any screen size

May 30-31, Boston: “Writing Right for the Web: Improving Your Web Content,” Academic Impressions Conference. Review the topics and register.
That’s all for now.

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