I'm going to state something some may find controversial - responsive design isn't always the best choice. There is a significant group of front end developers that swear by it. I love it myself, guilty as charged. Sometimes, it just doesn't fit the bill.
Transformers are cool in theory but aren't very practical. One size fits all sounds nice and ideal, but sometimes it just doesn't work. All in one.
For those of you not in the know, responsive web design is a website format that adjusts based on the screen size of the device you're accessing the website from.
credit: John Polacek - A pretty good overview presentation on RWD
Mobile first is a movement that was born out of necessity with a decent market share of people with smart phones and tablets. Mobile first just means working backwards from what you're probably used to. Start with the mobile strategy first and roll out to desktop and beyond accordingly, keeping it top of mind through the whole process. Alongside it is the latest technologies being experimented with - responsive design.
Chances are your website visitor is on some kind of mobile device whether it's their phone or tablet, so it's good stuff to be in on.
A short history
"Fluid" websites have been around forever. You remember full scaling flash websites, and full width percent based table websites right? It's nothing new. But such as trends come and go, this one has really taken off. It has it's own name. Responsive Web Design. Some argue it's "Adaptive Web Design" which can be used in a more broad term where responsive falls as a sub category, but that's mostly semantics.
Do I need it for my website?
Never build a responsive website just for the sake of building a responsive website. Why? Just because it's cool? Not good enough. It's easy getting caught in the trends and getting blinded by the big picture. Does it make sense for the project?
The best way to determine if it makes sense is to pull out your website analytics and have a look at the numbers. How many visitors are using phones? Tablets? And so on.
Being in denial isn't going to help you in the long run. Mobile is here to stay, and it's growing in market share by the day. You might want to plan ahead for the next couple of years and make your website mobile friendly.
When do you use Responsive Web Design
Platform Specific Experience
Having a desktop website that transforms into a mobile website can be a lot of work and effort. Sometimes it's best to have a separate mobile experience altogether. The mobile web is still fairly juvenile and hasn't reached the level of maturity that desktop computing has, yet. Depending on your situation it might be best to design a mobile website, and a desktop website which covers most of your bases.
Mobile websites often have to be simplified and relevant to the browsing experience.
This is a big one. As beautiful and fun as responsive websites are, they often add at least 3x the amount of work which equals more dollars. If you don't NEED responsive web design and are on a budget, you might need to leave it out - at least for now. The beautiful thing is you can always revisit your website and convert it into responsive later on. Unless it needs a major overhaul and then you may as well start from scratch.
Did you notice one of the most popular smartphone manufacture Apple.com is not responsive? It's on purpose. They want you to just pinch/zoom. Their website experience is mainly for desktops and works fine on their tablets.
Going responsive is not the be all, end all solution. Major companies have lived without it for years and will likely continue to do so. Many even have a separate, controlled application for each specific device to optimize the experience for the user.
The whole native platform versus web based applications is a somewhat more involved debate altogether but it shows that there is a disagreement on many levels.
We use responsive and adaptive design solutions all the time and will continue to do so, it's a good solution. It's not perfect yet.
You've seen a lot of words out there on universal websites. One screen websites, and so on. Mulitple devices at multiple screen sizes are the future, and the future is here. It's still early, and it's a work in progress.
Designing for the web is an evolution.