The Responsive Web Design Phenomenon: what it is and what it means for higher ed
Higher Education Marketing

The Responsive Web Design Phenomenon: what it is and what it means for higher ed

Date posted: January 28, 2013

Responsive Web Design (RWD) has been a growing trend in web design over the past couple of years. As more colleges and universities are adopting RWD practices and seeing its benefits, people in higher ed are jumping into the conversation. What is RWD? What can it do for your school?  What does RWD involve? Is it always the best solution?

What is responsive web design?

Responsive web design is a method used to make a website that works effectively on desktops and mobile devices, regardless of the operating system. Here is a great comparison of different ways to create mobile sites in terms of user experience. Why is responsive web design a rising trend for higher ed?

2012 was a turning point in mobile sales: more mobile devices were sold than desktops and laptops combined. In February 2012, 67% of adults aged 18 to 24 own a Smartphone. It is clear that the way we are consuming information is changing, and with the increasing use of mobile, a significant portion of us are tapping while we’re on the go. That said, as more of us have been turning to our mobiles to go online, there has been a growing expectation that websites in general (and college websites in particular) are mobile-friendly. Incidentally, the largest demographic of mobile users is aligned perfectly with the largest student demographic of higher ed. It’s no wonder then that universities and colleges have adopted RWD. Schools have seen the constant rise in mobile visits to their sites and it only makes sense in terms of student marketing to make sure visitors have the best experience on their mobile devices. As summed up by Matthew Klawitter, Associate Director, Digital Communications, Office of Alumni Relations and Development at Northwestern University, in a recent Link interview: “It’s ideal for a website to adapt its layout to the viewing environment or device. We will never control how, when, or where a visitor will access a website, so it is imperative that it work in all contexts.” There are three obvious reasons for colleges and universities to adopt RWD:

1. Increase your mobile search visibility: more and more information is requested via mobile devices, and students are also signing up for classes via their smartphone. You can track the rise of content being sharedvia mobile devicesand compare the results. By delivering an app-like experience, students are likely to visit your site more often.

2. Increase cost effectiveness: In the long term, having a responsive web design eliminates the need to maintain multiple sites, which decreases overall costs.

3. Overall control of your brand throughout devices by offering a consistent user experience across all devices. Regent College and Hendrix College are just two examples of colleges that are doing RWD. We have selected them on their smaller size and the variety of content proposed and the links proposed from the Homepage but they are not the only ones who have embraced RWD. Here is a growing list of higher ed institutions that have implemented RWD.

Responsive or not, it’s all about content

RWD does not come without some serious challenges for the technical teams at universities and the adoption has not been a smooth path for many schools. It begs the question: is RWD right for everyone? Is it always better than a dedicated mobile site? Whether or not your college decides to go for RWD a significant amount of your focus will always come back to content. With building a website comes the need to rethink content layout, about sidebars and templates for instance, and potentially cutting or re-writing content for the site. While RDW is a geared to enhance user-experience, it actually puts a new emphasis on content as well. It requires colleges and universities to focus on their brand and their content to make sure they meet visitors’ needs both technically and informatively.

For a great discussion of the importance and challenges of RWD, watch this HigherEdLive video: Has your college been experimenting with RWD? What has been your experience? Please share!