We all agree that a website should always be "responsive" to the needs of a user.
However, should it be responsively designed using the Responsive Web Design technique, or should we design the website to respond to users' needs dependent on the scenario in which they are accessing the website (are they mobile? are they using a small screen? is the size of their browser window reduced?)
Keep in mind that context is not only a product of screen size and the type of device that is being used to access the website, but also the underlying reason why the user is visiting the website. Short of asking the user why they are accessing a website, we must study the key users and their goals for each particular context in which they access the site, and align them with the goals of the website (in conjunction with their assessing their device capabilities).
Contextual web design?
If a user is accessing the site on a mobile device, they are accessing the site in a different context than if they were accessing it via a web browser on a desktop computer. Accordingly they will have different needs and likely want to complete different tasks.
It is likely that different content should be prioritized and presented differently for different contexts – mobile users will most likely want quick convenient access to "on the go" information (such as phone numbers, addresses and directions), whereas desktop users are more likely to want more detailed information (such as information that will help them make a decision about the company and its offerings).
Is Responsive Web Design the solution?
As explained in the A List Apart article, "Responsive Web Design" (RWD) allows a website's layout to respond based on the device screen size (and secondarily device capabilities), and it largely infers the goals of the user based on screen size (in its true sense, RWD only serves up different CSS stylesheets for different screen resolutions). What it doesn't address is needing to respond to the context as well – we are likely going to want to show mobile users different copy, and almost certainly we will want to show them different file-sized images so the site loads at an acceptable speed. Thus, I believe we have to use more than just a RWD approach to "respond" appropriately to mobile users with slower connections.
What about a dedicated mobile website?
At the other end of the web design spectrum, a good dedicated mobile site will be responsive to the mobile context in which it is assumed that it will be accessed, and will thus be responsive to the on the go type of information that the user will need. These sites use server-side logic to show users the relevant content, yet the problem is that typically these websites will only cater to mobile user with smartphones, such as the iPhone. What if the user only accesses the Web via a smartphone and needs more information? What if the user uses a small browser window?
This design challenge is amplified every day as technology progresses, with more and more permutations of devices, screen sizes, web browsers, and of course usage context, resulting in an infinite number of possible combinations to design for.
So what do we do?
Technically, the "Responsive Web Design" (RWD) approach can be applied to your full website to create a site that caters to mobile devices (or other devices with small screens). Conversely, you could create a second dedicated version of your website for mobile users. But what about everyone in the middle, or those on the outside with huge TV screens connected to the Internet, Xboxes or WAP phones?
It depends on your users, their needs, and your website content
Before deciding on an approach, not only do you need to understand the implication of each approach, but more importantly you need to understand why and how users are using your site in different contexts, and what the various goals for each of the contexts are. Only then can you choose the appropriate approach to present your information and deliver a truly responsive website.
For some sites the answer will be a dedicated mobile site for on the go website visitors. Other sites will be able to leverage RWD to serve different layouts to suit their users' needs. Likely you will find you need to use a combination of both RWD and server-side intelligence to response to your users' contexts.
The approach going forward for many of our clients will be to develop a dedicated mobile site for users on the go, while ensuring that the full experience leverages RWD to ensure those using smaller screens still have an exceptional experience. The hard part is putting that into action!