My pet peeve for web design is when I use my smartphone to visit a website (for example, a news article linked from Facebook or Google News) I get a site that expects a "desktop browser."
It's been a long time since web developers could make the "safe" assumption that web browsers were running in a 4:3 desktop display, usually 1024x768. Web designers worked from that model to build websites that used sidebars to display navigation or related links, banners and footers, and wide content display areas.
But that is in the past. The paradigm of "desktop only" web browsers is no longer true. Today's internet devices range from the ultra small (iPhone or iPod) to the small-ish (tablets) to the mid-range (laptops and desktops) to the huge (widescreen HD displays). And devices are trending smaller. In November 2011, Nielsen reported that a wide majority of mobile phone subscribers owned a smartphone capable of displaying web pages. 64% of users aged 25-34 owned a smartphone, and about half of adults 18-25 and 35-44. This trend is increasing; at Morris, we estimate about 2/3 of our students have smartphones, a figure that is inline with Neilsen.
This increasing trend to mobile has practical effects on higher ed web sites. Across all of higher ed, according to a 2012 Noel-Levitz report, over half of surveyed students have looked at a campus website on a mobile device - and half of those reported that a mobile website improved their opinion of the university. According to a Fall 2011 analysis of our incoming freshmen, 151 new students accessed their admissions application on a mobile device. Of those, 37 submitted. In a university advertising campaign on the StarTribune website, mobile traffic had the highest click-through rate as a percentage of all traffic.
To make information products (such as websites) work for everyone, we must support mobile devices at the same time as the high-resolution desktops. The preferred way to do this is by applying a method called responsive web design. The concepts of responsive web design is highly technical, but web designers can use a few methods to make pages responsive to the size of the screen. It's not about detecting the browser and delivering a different web pages; the key is creating a webpage that lets the browser deal with the content in a way that suits the size of the display.
In an April 2013 article (To go or not to go… responsive) in University Business, Karine Joly discusses responsive web strategies, saying The adoption of the responsive web design approach has moved fast, very fast. As with anything moving this fast, some consultants and mobile web agencies have raised concerns on why the approach can't (or shouldn't) work for every institution. Some are worried that by supporting all devices, webmasters split their attention too finely. Others are concerned with the increased costs to develop and support responsive web design.
Joly gives 3 reasons institutions should jump into responsive web design:
We live in a multi-device world
The reality is that mobile device use is already high with teenagers—our future college applicants—and is on the rise.
Mobile and tablet web traffic to university websites is increasing
We see this trend at Morris, as well. Mobile devices will continue to become more popular with our students, faculty and staff, and it's our responsibility to support them.
More institutions have already chosen to go responsive
If other higher ed institutions are delivering responsive web content that can be displayed just as easily on a smartphone as on a laptop, then the issue quickly shifts to competition. Ask your admissions director and he/she will tell you this is a critical decision point for many high school students. If potential new students can view your university website on their personal device, such as a tablet, that student builds a better connection to you.
I'm proud to say that our University of Minnesota Morris website uses responsive web design, and has done so since summer 2012. Our web developers (Matt and Matt) worked very hard to ensure that the website would display correctly across a variety of devices at different resolutions. This is a difficult challenge for any web development group, and it certainly caused some extra work on our end (the key is to build the website for mobile first and work your way up to larger resolutions as you build up the web stylesheets). But the effort was definitely worth it.