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Presidential Smackdown Edition Separate Mobile Website Vs. Responsive Website

The US presidential race is heading into full swing, which means we’ll soon see the candidates intensely debate the country’s hot-button issues. While the candidates are busy battling it out, the Web design world is entrenched in its own debate about how to address the mobile Web: creating separate mobile websites versus creating responsive websites.

It just so happens that the two US presidential candidates have chosen different mobile strategies for their official websites. In the red corner is Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s dedicated mobile website, and in the blue corner is incumbent Barack Obama’s responsive website1.

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama websites2

We’re going to see how well their mobile Web experiences stack up. But before we do, we need to ask a few questions.

Why Bother With Mobile? Link

Why are the candidates attempting to create mobile-optimized Web experiences? Well, the US population is sitting at around 311 million. Of those 311 million people, about half of US adults own a smartphone3. On top of that, for a whopping 28% of Americans, a mobile device is their primary way of accessing the Web4. So, for a candidate looking to reach potential voters, mobile provides a tremendous opportunity to connect with their constituents.

What’s more is that people are arriving to the mobile Web through more diverse channels than ever before. In addition to direct and referral traffic, candidates are using social networks, email campaigns, SMS campaigns, search and more. Because these activities are increasingly happening on mobile, creating Web experiences optimized for mobile makes even more sense for the candidates.

What Drives to Mobile Web?5
These are just a few channels that drive people to the Web on mobile devices.

The candidates see mobile as a big opportunity to turn visitors into voters. We can see the candidates’ incentive, but now we must ask another important “Why” question.

Why Would Anyone Visit A Candidate’s Website? Link

Who is visiting these candidates’ websites? What are they looking for? Why might they want on a mobile device?

Visitors are generally either looking for information on the candidates or looking to take action.

The Information-Oriented Visitor Link

The information-oriented user might be looking for basic information about the candidate, such as his biography, background or stance on issues. They might also be interested in regularly updated information such as news, locale-specific blog posts and information like myth busting (where the candidate tries to dispel nasty rumors circulating in the media). The official websites give the candidates a chance to deliver information straight from the horse’s mouth, free from news media bias and inaccuracies that arise from crowd-sourced information.

The Action-Oriented Visitor Link

The action-oriented user is looking to support the candidate in some way, shape or form. Both websites prominently feature calls to action asking visitors to donate money to the campaign and to sign up for their email newsletter. Action-oriented users might also want to connect with the candidates on social media channels, volunteer their time at an event, make calls on the candidate’s behalf or shop for merchandise.

The candidates have accounted for these use cases in their Web experiences. Let’s look at how they execute on mobile.

Criteria For Judging: Layon’s Theory of Mobile Motivation Link

The effectiveness of Romney and Obama’s positions on the economy, foreign policy, social issues and other important subjects depends on certain criteria. Likewise, we need to establish a set of criteria to determine the effectiveness of the candidates’ mobile Web experiences.

Mobile Web designer Kristofer Layon6 has a clever way of looking at the hierarchy of mobile needs. His “theory of mobile motivation7” is based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs8, a psychological theory that identifies the various levels of human needs.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs9
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Kristofer Layon has applied that theory to the needs of mobile Web users, where primary access and navigation are the most essential aspects of an experience, and at the top of the pyramid are HTML5 enhancements (such as offline storage and a boatload10 of other features).

Layon’s Hierarchy of Mobile Needs11
Layon’s hierarchy of mobile needs.

Let’s apply a simplified version of Kristofer’s hierarchy to evaluate how well each candidate’s website holds up.

My simplified version of Layon's Hierarchy of Mobile Needs12
My simplified version of Layon’s hierarchy of mobile needs.

Access Link

First and foremost, users need to be able to access an experience. The most beautiful design in the world will accomplish nothing if people can’t view it. Historically, the mobile Web has been viewed as the Web Lite™, whose users get served only a subset of content and functionality13. However, a whopping 28% of US residents use a mobile device as their primary way to access the Web. With more people relying on their mobile devices to access the Web, achieving content parity14 and giving users access to a full experience regardless of their device or configuration are more important than ever. Let’s see how the presidential candidates’ mobile Web experiences hold up.

Barack Obama Link

Barack Obama’s “mobile” website has no “full site” link because it shares the same code base as the “desktop” website. Content on a responsive website lives under one roof, which gives the website a better chance of achieving content parity. And while responsive designers can (and do) hide content from small-screen users, responsive design affords less opportunity to fork the content and create disparate experiences, which would deprive certain users of valuable information and features.

Mitt Romney Link

Mitt Romney’s website uses device detection to route mobile users to a separate dedicated website. Creating this separate experience allows the designers to tailor the mobile Web experience, but a separate design and subdomain also opens the door to some serious problems.

The main problem with Mitt Romney’s mobile website is that only a fraction of the full website’s features are included.

Mitt Romney mobile site features vs desktop site features15
Only some of the features from the full website have made it onto the mobile-specific website.

It’s a myth16 that mobile users don’t want access to all of the information and functionality available to desktop users. The absence of key content on Romney’s mobile website leaves a lot of serious questions unanswered for potential supporters, such as “Who is this guy, anyway?,” “Where does he stand on issues?,” “What’s his plan for the economy?,” “What can he do for my state?” and “Where can I shop?”

Another common problem with separate mobile websites is URL management. Because desktop and mobile content live at separate URLs, device detection is required to route users to the appropriate site. Unfortunately, many websites don’t go deep enough in their URL redirection, so desktop users will get sent to mobile content and vice versa. This becomes apparent when mobile content gets shared by mobile users on social networks and then gets accessed by desktop users:

Romney's mobile site displayed on a desktop17
Issues arise when a mobile URL is accessed from a desktop.

As we can see, having Web content all under the same roof and URL definitely makes it easier to give visitors access to the content they’re looking for, regardless of the device they happen to be using.

Interact Link

Basic access to a website is essential, but what happens once the visitor is on the website? They need to be able to interact with the content and get around the website. Let’s start with one of the most common and important interactions: navigation.

Navigation, especially on mobile, should be like a good friend: there when you need it, but considerate enough to give you your space. When navigation takes up a ton of real estate, it gets in the way and becomes that annoying friend who won’t leave you alone. When it’s inaccessible, hidden or just hard to reach, it becomes that friend who’s conveniently absent when you’re looking for help to move to your new apartment.

Barack Obama

Obama’s website serves navigation at the top for large screens and then transforms it into a left fly-out menu for screens narrower than 1024 pixels.

Obama’s website has Facebook-esque left fly-out navigation19 for small screen resolutions. Among popular responsive techniques20, this one is relatively complex and opens the door to problems. As Stephanie Rieger points out in her post “A Plea for Progressive Enhancement,” Obama’s navigation fails on a whole load of mobile devices: “And the menu failed. Never even opened. Suddenly, the site was without navigation… at all.”

These situations, regardless of approach, can be avoided using proper progressive-enhancement techniques, but it’s a good example of the challenges that arise when creating adaptive experiences.

Mitt Romney

Mitt Romney Mobile Nav21
Romney’s mobile website has a dashboard home page and “Back” and “Home” links for inner pages. The full website has top navigation.

Romney’s relatively simple mobile navigation contrasts starkly with Obama’s navigation. It sits as a dashboard on the home page, and all inner pages simply include a “Back” button and a logo that links back to the home page.

This navigation technique certainly solves the problem of limited real estate and avoids complexity, but it creates other issues. Requiring a full page refresh just to jump to another section of the website isn’t very efficient. A logo as a button doesn’t exactly scream “Click me for navigation!” And the “Back” button does nothing if the visitor arrives at the website on a page other than the home page. It’s also worth noting that mobile browsers already have their own back buttons, so duplicating that functionality in the header could be regarded as wasted space.

Scrolling Link

Scrolling is an interesting interaction on mobile devices. The “fold” as a set pixel value is a myth22, but users still need to be able to access the core content as quickly as possible.

Mitt Romney

Romney’s mobile website has an acceptable page length. Not much chrome or clutter before you get to the core content, and for the most part the user doesn’t have to scroll much to find what they need.

Barack Obama

Obama’s pages contain a massive amount of content, often introducing entirely new sections far down in the flow. The result is extremely long pages that have serious problems.

Romney vs Obama's mobile page length23

Scrolling through disparate content types is not a good experience. How do users figure out that other content exists? Finding what they’re looking for becomes a scavenger hunt. While they might be all right with sifting through one or two content types (for example, a blog’s main article and subsequent sidebar), a lot of disparate types makes the content unfindable and the page impractical.

While content parity is essential for mobile users, that doesn’t mean websites have to be one size fits all. Techniques like lazy loading24 and conditional loading25 enable Web creators to provide access to full content without having to stuff it all on the page at the same time. And while those techniques can be extremely effective, there’s no substitute for subtracting supplementary content everywhere to focus on core content.

In addition to the annoyance caused by having to scroll through so much content, these massively long pages have another downside: terrible performance.

Perform Link

Performance has gotten the short end of the stick. Web creators have assumed too much about the user’s context (“Of course, the user has a fast connection!” “Of course, their machine is powerful!”). As a result of these convenient assumptions, the average page now weighs a whopping 1 MB26.

One MB might not seem like a big deal until we look at the mobile user’s expectations. 71% of mobile users27 expect mobile websites to load as fast, if not faster, than desktop websites, and 74% of mobile visitors will abandon a website if it takes more than 5 seconds to load. In other words, you have 5 seconds to get someone’s attention. Make it count.

To evaluate how well the candidates’ websites perform, we’ll use the excellent mobile performance test to capture performance results on real devices.

Mitt Romney Link

Romney Mobile performance28

A typical page on Romney’s mobile website is about 687 KB and, as a result, takes about 8.75 seconds to load. While that’s over the 5-second mark, the pages still weigh less than the average size.

Barack Obama Link

Obama performance results29

A typical page on Obama’s responsive website is a massive 4.2 MB, resulting in a 25-second loading time.

Despite the fact that only the most patient of visitors would wait 25 seconds for a page to load, such a large payload creates real accessibility problems. Some devices (such as my cousin’s company-issued BlackBerry) won’t even render the page because it’s too large.

Real BlackBerry trying to load barackobama.com30

While some of this is RIM’s or my cousin’s employer’s doing, it’s a legitimate constraint that we need to be mindful of.

Unfortunately, poor performance is prevalent among the current crop of responsive designs in the wild. Guy Podjarny, chief product architect at Akamai and CTO of, discovered that only 3% of small-screen versions of responsive websites31 are significantly lighter than their large-screen counterparts. This is all the more reason to focus on performance as a key component of adaptive Web design.

Enhance Link

We’ve talked about content parity and the importance of providing access to information and functionality regardless of device or configuration. But that doesn’t mean we have to settle on serving a one-size-fits-all experience. Many mobile devices and browsers can do things that desktops cannot. Making the most of these wonderful features will take the mobile experience to the next level.

Mobile Communication Link

Obama’s designers have implemented one huge enhancement: the ability to make calls on the candidate’s behalf directly from a phone. We tend to forget that mobile phones are, at root, voice-based communication devices and that mobile browsers can initiate a call when the user clicks a tel link. By exploiting this enhancement, Obama is able to mobilize his mobile users into action, which could have a big impact on the campaign.

Obama Call functionality32
Obama’s call functionality enables users to make calls on the candidate’s behalf, right from their phones.

Besides enabling phone calls to be initiated from the browser, there are many other opportunities for mobile enhancement. Here are just a few ways that both websites could enhance the experience and make the most of the mobile Web.

Simple Form Enhancements Link

The great thing about form enhancements is that they require barely any effort. One enhancement for many mobile browsers is to specify an HTML5 input type to pull up the appropriate virtual keyboard33 for the user. While this enhancement isn’t particularly mind-blowing, anything that allows the user to complete their task more quickly certainly helps and could lead to more conversions.

Simple form enhancements can make an experience just a bit less tedious34
Setting these forms to input type=number would pull up the appropriate virtual keyboard, thus saving the user an extra step.

Geolocation Link

Detecting location is an extremely powerful way to provide users with contextually relevant information. Imagine dynamically displaying blog posts, news and upcoming events relevant to the user’s location. Obama’s website smartly allows users to choose their state; perhaps they could take it further and add geolocation as a way to identify it. Geolocation can also save steps when filling out forms, and it creates opportunities for innovative new features.

Touch Events Link

The beauty of touchscreens is that they give users a way to interact directly with content and can add a layer of fun to the experience. These websites could leverage touch events to allow users to swipe through photos in a gallery or to thumb through a quick overview of the candidates’ stances on important issues.

Many More Link

This is just a small sampling of enhancements. Support for a ton of features can be detected35, and a ton of use cases emerge from the plethora of devices that access the Web. Ask questions. “Can I offer features that are useful to users on the go?” “How might I use offline storage to improve the experience?” “How can I take advantage of touch events?” Lay a solid foundation, and look for opportunities to enhance.

So, Who Wins? Link

If there’s one lesson to learn from analyzing these websites and techniques, it’s that this stuff is genuinely hard. A lot goes into making a great mobile Web experience, and I’m personally thrilled that the candidates have taken the important first steps toward making their websites mobile-friendly. Viewing the mobile web as a wonderful journey and not as a destination is absolutely essential. As we step into the deep end of multi-device Web design, we must strive to continually improve our websites and services in order to better serve our users — wherever they may be.

While the design of a candidate’s website might not determine the outcome of the presidential election, it will certainly influence how the world perceives the candidate. And for a Web-savvy voter like myself, a website’s design might just sway my vote. I know who I’m voting for in November!36


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Brad Frost is a mobile web strategist and front-end designer at R/GA and is based out of beautiful Pittsburgh, PA. He is the creator of Mobile Web Best Practices, a resource site aimed at helping people create great mobile and responsive web experiences. He runs a responsive web design newsletter and also curates WTF Mobile Web, a site that teaches by example what not to do when working with the mobile web. He is passionate about mobile and is constantly tweeting, writing and speaking about it.

  1. 1

    Responsive all the way, in my opinion.

    It’s up to the developer to reflow content in an effectively for mobile devices, and I’ve found that simply using CSS selectors to hide unnecessary cruft works well enough to keep mobile pages manageable.

    You can get an idea for what I’m talking about on by resizing the screen (my company – I recently redesigned the site). It’s very important to tailor the experience for each crowd and I’ve found a great way to reduce the heaviness of pages is a little JS magic to render images (sized according to the viewport) after the HTML has already loaded, with fallback img elements in noscript tags.

    • 2

      Evan, that is a great job you have done with your site I have been sitting on the fence about the solution for our next mobile project. You have sold me on the responsive approach in just seconds. Thanks for the inspiration.

    • 3

      Responsive is better option, and we noticed that we have increased number of requests in our dev center for HTML5/jQuery front-ends (BTW Google published book some time ago or it was mentioned that about 70% of Google visitors were coming from mobile browsers

  2. 4

    I just checked out Obamas website on my phone and its a mobile version.. Not a scaled down responsive version?

  3. 7

    Good post. I believe the mobile version should be kept separate from the desktop version. With correct implementation, it’s a no brainer for your users.

  4. 8

    I think this article proves that there isn’t one method that is the “best” for all sites. Why do the experts in the community tout their opinion as the “correct” way?

    • 9

      I agree, but i think its tough for the experts in the community too as they are often out the front of these issues driving the discussion with their articles and talks before the rest of us chime in. I don’t think any of the most prominent thought leaders ( Ethan Marcotte, Luke Wroblewski, Brad Frost and others ) are in disagreement with this approach

  5. 10

    Great article, in future people will access the internet from their tablets and mobiles than their computers. So smart businesses should always move with the trend.

    though I was wondering why you don’t have a single social media share buttons?

  6. 15

    Am I a Democrat if I like Responsive Design? – Great Article, really enjoyed it reading.

    One thing so strikes me about the start: I don’t think the debate about either responsive design or separate mobile site. Neither of them does solve all challenges and satisfies all needs. But both point into the right direction: Web Design needs to work across a large diverse variety of devices. Both approaches tackle those needs: The Responsive Design methodology does help a great deal with managing layout for a continuum of screen widths – mobile sites on the other do deal with the different user interactions and different browsing habits regarding way to present and the more spontaneous nature of browsing on a mobile.
    A remaining key problem for next generation web sites is the diversity of devices – and taken to the next level the diversity of context browsing occurs in. Gone are the old times of us sitting patiently in front a machine and doing comparison shopping, surf along for hours or even minutes. With the mobile browsing becoming the new normal browsing peoples habits changed and requirements for good web experience exploded: Users want their device leveraged to the best possible (thanks Steve Jobs to provide us with a new norm in UI – something I call “Apple Grade Experience”) and also take their current situation into account: location, time of day and ideally capture the intent often triggered from something “offline” like billboards, a bird raising the desire for an ice cream or holidays.
    It is this diversity that designers and technology vendors alike need to learn how to manage that will lead to the next generation web experience. If you are interested more: Please vote for the SXSW submission “In Mobile, Diversity is the next fragmentation”:

  7. 16

    Well illustrated article. Highly recommended for all the mobile developers! Look forward to reading similar stuff ahead!

  8. 17

    Super article, Brad! It’s amazing how tone deaf Obama’s developers were in allowing such an enormous page to be served.

    One quick note: It seems that has (very recently) been acquired by Akamai, and is now Mobitest:

    • 18

      Yup, fully aware of that as I use it almost every day. What an amazing tool!

    • 19

      Blair Christopher

      August 23, 2012 5:56 am

      The endless scrolling, even at my desktop for the Obama screen was extremely poignant.

  9. 20

    Great article! Nice mix of psychology and design delivered with nifty pictures.

    This post has helped me better understand the mobile site vs responsive site debate.

    @Brad – When are you coming to PDX with your sage wisdom?

  10. 21

    While the whopping page size of Obama’s site is abysmal, I tend to prefer to design Responsive websites. It just so happens that most of the content our clients have is more text heavy than image heavy. Still, a responsive image spec (which we know is in the works) could go a long way to making page size lighter by only downloading large images for devices that need them. Then, I think, Responsive might have more of an edge.

    • 22

      Responsive websites don’t have to be heavy. There’s a ton of great techniques (including adaptive images that you mentioned) that allow us to create fully-featured web experiences that are still highly performant. I’d check out Southstreet by The Filament Group for a collection of amazing techniques:

  11. 23

    Great article that shows the pros and cons of the two methods.

    I believe a combination of responsive web design (with feature detection) and device detection (RESS) is better then choosing one over the other. I’m experimenting a lot lately with Categorizr, where I’m able to serve snippets of optimized content for mobile, tablet, desktop and TV’s and the more I play with it the more I start to like it.

    • 24

      RESS is certainly a viable and powerful option to fine-tune an experience when fitting everything under the same code base can’t work. Definitely check out Dave Olsen’s excellent work with RWD and server-side detection:

      • 25

        I’ve read that article indeed a while ago, Brad.

        The thing with RWD that is bothering me a bit is that tablets these days has the same screen resolution as laptops/desktops, so setting media queries that actually are intended for desktop are also gonne be served to tablets.

        I load now a global stylesheet with styles meant for all devices and then with Categorizr I include device specific stylesheets: mobile.css, tablet.css, desktop,.css and tv.css. The same I do with scripts.

        Categorizr together with Modernizr for feature detection to load my polyfills and CSS fallback solutions is as far as I can tell a great combo so far to me.

        • 26

          It begs the question: does tablet design need to be drastically different from desktop design? Provided you’re making hit areas large, taking advantage of touch, making sure you’re addressing hover states, etc, there’s not too much reason to dramatically alter the design between the two.

          I’ve found that ‘mobile’ ‘tablet’ ‘desktop’ buckets fall apart. I tend to name things ‘small’ ‘medium’ and ‘large’ for a more agnostic approach to things.

      • 27

        I’ve read that article indeed a while ago, Brad.

        The thing with RWD that is bothering me a bit is that tablets these days has the same screen resolution as laptops/desktops, so setting media queries that actually are intended for desktop are also gonne be served to a lot of tablets.

        I load now a global stylesheet with styles meant for all devices (such as css resets) and then with Categorizr I include device specific stylesheets: mobile.css, tablet.css, desktop,.css and tv.css which get only loaded by the device it’s meant for. The same I do with scripts.

        Categorizr together with Modernizr for feature detection, to load polyfills and to create CSS fallback solutions, is as far as I can tell a great combo to me.

        • 28

          Sorry for the duplicate comment SM… I thought something went wrong, cause I didn’t see my comment appear.

    • 29

      I’ve used Categorizr before too. It’s got awesome/accurate device detection. Pair it with Modernizr and you have a great way to find device classes and their capabilities. RESS seems like a great way to limit what is sent over the wire to mobile devices.

  12. 30

    Well done. I’m barely a mid-tech person and yet your writing lays out the concepts so clearly that the post really flowed as I read. Thank you.

  13. 31

    Interesting comparison.

    Though I would totally question linking to a PDF about mobile myths by Global Moxie (Seven Deadly Mobile Myths) where they blatantly state: “Everything about Nielsen’s guidelines are wrong and damaging.”

    Everything? Wow. Just… No words.

  14. 33

    I truly believe that the way to go is responsive layout with adaptive content!

  15. 34

    Dustan Curtis

    August 23, 2012 12:21 am

    Haven’t read the article yet but I’m already excited based on the excellent examples chosen. Two extremely similar sites with near identical purposes, both trying to convey the same message.


  16. 35

    Thank you Brad! I just started to study responsive website design and trying to make responsive templates and share with all. I believe that all internet websites will go to responsive. Because in our days we all use not just pc. I understand that in responsive sites we have have pluses and minuses. And i think everyone can make his/her own choose about his website. For some situations we can use responsive design and for some create separated web and mobile websites. I like create responsive website design with simple layouts, good css code and nice design. I share my works on And I’m very happy that i stand in our time and have possibility to create websites for all devices:)

    Thanks again for good article and i waiting next good post from you!

  17. 36

    CDN Design Studio

    August 23, 2012 1:18 am

    I appreciate that mobile website designing is good, but it doesn’t useful when we are going to surf on other digital platform and because of this i give vote to responsive web design, as it adaptable to all platforms.

  18. 37

    Great that you picked the current presidential campaign as a case. Furthermore the article is well written, has a great variety in images, comments and figures. @Brad: imho one of the best articles ever written on SM.

  19. 38

    Babasaheb Ladhane

    August 23, 2012 3:34 am

    Good comparison!

    I beleive the Responsive design is the better option. It automaticaly detect device, screen resolution, page orientation etc and render the content accordingly.

  20. 39

    Nice generic overview of “best practices” (speed especially) , but don’t read too much into it. You’re making a TON of dangerous assumptions that are OK for a mom-and-pop business but could be very expensive for sites of this scale.

    28% of Americans use mobile as their primary way to access the web.

    Who cares?

    Do people who primarily use mobile to access the web visit more or less pages than people who use desktops? Are they more or less likely to donate money? Are they more or less likely to volunteer?

    The real question is “How many mobile visitors do Obama and Romney get to their website and is it worth the cost to focus on mobile?”

    My guess is this is an EASY yes, but it sounds like you’re encouraging web developers to avoid hard data when it’s RIGHT AT YOUR FINGER TIPS.

    Again, I agree with most things you say here, but stop it with the 28%, it’s a distractor.

    • 40

      “28% of Americans use mobile as their primary way to access the web. Who cares?” Jason, everyone needs to care.

      From the time this article was written, that number has actually grown to 31% ( and mobile web traffic will soon overtake desktop traffic ( And for many people, their mobile device is their only lens to the modern world. I highly recommend checking out Karen McGrane’s wonderful talk ( on the subject.

      It’s false to state that mobile users won’t do everything desktop users will do. Mobile users will do anything and everything desktop users will do, provided it’s presented in a usable way.

      The web’s biggest power is its ubiquity, and as creators of the web we need to respect and embrace that fact. By deliberately giving mobile (or any other undesirable platform) the middle finger, we’re undermining the very nature of the web.

      I get what you’re saying about how you need to pick and choose your battles as it’s imposible to make everything a priority. But it’s important to understand that you can *support* as many platforms as humanly possible, while still *optimizing* for the platforms that make sense for your particular business case (


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