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Opting out of Responsive design

There have been a couple of posts doing the rounds recently about opting out of responsive design: letting users choose to view the "desktop" version of a site. I'm more interested in the why than the how of the opting out, and I've gathered some thoughts below.

I do believe that users should be offered choices to make their experience the best it can be, but something about this responsive toggle discussion feels a little off to me. Letting users opt out of a responsive design (and view a large screen version of a site on a small screen) feels like we web developers have failed twice. The first failure is not providing a good enough experience with the responsive site. The second failure is building fixed-width sites (an old problem). Web pages are responsive by default: it's only when we start adding CSS and applying fixed widths to elements that we break this.

Why offer a toggle?

There seem to be two main motivations for offering a "responsive on / off" toggle:

  • users are confused by differences in the site across devices;
  • users can't accomplish the task they want to.

Differences across devices

Anecdotal evidence suggests that some users are confused when they view a site on their mobile device and it looks radically different from when they were viewing it on their desktop. This is also an old problem, and it's also our fault: it's an extension of Do websites need to look exactly the same in every browser? and Do websites need to be experienced exactly the same in every browser? We have helped build up users' expectations that the answers to these questions is yes. There's no reason why the experience of a web site should be identical when I'm sat at my desk in the morning, with a cup of coffee, my nice big screen, and when I'm using it on my smartphone, standing on the train, being elbow-jostled at rush hour.

Can't accomplish the task

If a user can't accomplish the task they want to on a responsive site, either it's not there or they can't find it.

Missing features on a small screen version of a site harks back to m dot sites ( and serving a subset of content to users with small screens. This is fairly well established as a bad thing to do: what we aim for is content parity across all platforms.

There are many myths around mobile context and mobile users, but one of the most damaging is "Mobile users won't want to do that." Perhaps the most persuasive rebuttal to such arguments is to show the growing number of Mobile only users: people who don't (or very infrequently) have access to large screen devices such as desktops. Not letting users on small screens have all your content means not letting some people have it at all.

If a user can't find the feature they're looking for (but it is there), that comes down to us again: poor hierarchy or navigation that leads to lost users.


I think it's worth remembering that we will always be imposing some limitation on user choice. When we design a site we are making a choice on behalf of the user (and the business): we decide typography, colours, spacing, images. On the other hand, users do already have the power to view our content in ways other than how we decide: RSS; read it later services like Readability and Pocket.

Although choice is a good thing, I feel like offering an opt-out is a bit of a cop out. The pragmatist in realises that perhaps it's necessary for now.

Further reading