Finding the Perfect M-Commerce Fit: Three Benefits of Responsive Design

Part one of this series examined the three keys to m-commerce success: Use mobile to drive sales, not just close sales; remember that not all mobile devices are created equal; and account for e-commerce multi-tasking. These imperatives follow from the key insight that sites must be designed and executed differently for mobile devices than they would on a desktop or laptop — yet still deliver a coherent customer experience across devices and locations.

This creates an obvious challenge. How do you develop a site that feels integrated on multiple platforms but also looks and acts differently depending upon the device your customer is using at any given time? The answer, ironically, is to create a single e-commerce site that provides a great user experience regardless of what device it's accessed from. It's not a "one size fits all" approach. Rather, the site actually and actively changes size, dimensions, layout and even functionality depending on the device on which it's rendered. This is achieved through what is called "responsive design."

If you haven't heard of responsive design yet, you're not alone. Although the basic concepts were worked out by forward-looking designers over the past three years or so, as of yet responsive design has had only minimal impact on e-commerce sites. That is about to change. Mashable went so far as to call 2013 "the year of responsive design."

In the past 12 months responsive design has gone from a curiosity to a nice-to-have to an e-commerce must-have.  Understandably, some retailers are skeptical as to whether a responsive site truly is better than deploying separate mobile and desktop sites and/or apps, particularly if they've already invested in those things.  In almost all cases, however, the answer is a resounding "yes." Here's why.

It's what customers want
Perhaps the most important benefit of responsive design is that it gives customers what they're clamoring for: a user experience tailored to whatever device they happen to be using.  A recent survey by Accenture found that 49 percent of respondents said "integrating stores/online/mobile" is where retailers need to improve the shopping experience most. This should be of particular concern to apparel retailers as the study also found that nearly two thirds of those shopping for apparel prefer to do so online and rate seamless user experience — if not clothes — as increasingly important.

By building their sites following responsive design best practices, retailers can finally give customers the experience they're thirsting for, thereby increasing loyalty and satisfaction. If customers are "e-commerce multi-device multi-tasker," it will be easier for them to log in to a site on their mobile phone, add items to their shopping cart and complete their transactions on a tablet or desktop computer later, using the relative strengths of each device. They can also be assured that they'll have access to the same information and the same products, even the same shopping cart.

It helps connect the dots
Disconnected online experiences have been just as big a frustration for apparel retailers as they've been for customers. By building a single responsive site with a single log-in for customers, retailers can gain additional insight into how their customers are using various devices in tandem and how they're using them differently. Already we know some general trends.
As mentioned in part one, 85 percent of online shoppers begin searching for products on one device before making a purchase on a different device. But just as all devices aren't created equal, neither are all shoppers. Potential customers looking for apparel behave far differently along a number of dimensions than do customers browsing a discount electronics site. Having a single underlying mobile and desktop platform allows you to more easily tease out the crucial factors that help convert customers when they use multiple devices.

Set it and forget it
Creating or redesigning an e-commerce site using responsive design principles will certainly cost more than building a desktop-only system. (A good rule of thumb is about 25 percent more, though that will vary depending on the project.) This is also true, however, of building device-specific solutions. Employing a responsive approach ultimately sets retailers up better for the long-term.

Today, there is an ever-growing list of devices that people can use to access the web.  Imagine designing separate dedicated sites for every single one of those devices while also making sure that they integrate with each other. A key benefit of a responsively designed site is that there is a single code base to maintain. In other words, the same underlying software can support commerce on desktops, Google-glass, cars and whatever the next big thing is.

Beyond the hundreds of devices that already exist, there are new devices entering the market nearly every day.  For example, if Google Glass becomes a common way to surf the web in the future, a site that uses responsive design will not become instantly obsolete.  Once a site is built using responsive design, it has a longer shelf-life.

Like everything to do with digitally enabled commerce, it is important to note that responsive design principles are (and will continue to be) evolving. As tomorrow's innovations become today's best practices, responsive design will make it easier for developers to tailor sites for different devices while still maintaining a single underlying architecture. But when it comes to providing the seamless online experience that customers and retailers are looking for, responsive design is already the answer. It's not only the perfect fit for apparel retailers looking to meet the demands of consumers, it's the only fit.

Michael Harvey is COO of Corra, a leading provider of e-commerce and multichannel commerce solutions.
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