While often ballyhooed as a means for covering the wide variety of computing screen sizes company websites must accommodate, one-size-fits-all websites are actually a trade-off that often end up being more trouble than they’re worth.

The problem: These “responsive websites,” sites that auto-sense a device’s screen size and reconfigure text and graphics to fit it, often render on desktop PCs with ridiculously large text and other overblown features that are tedious to wade through.

(Responsive design: A primer)

The impetus behind the approach makes sense. Web designers using responsive design take great pains to ensure that anything that appears on traditional-sized websites will look good on the smallest of screens, even a smartphone’s.

Said Rupinder Dhariwal, cofounder of Web design firm Creative Cranes: “We are heavily pushing responsive websites to our new clients, and updating a lot of existing sites to include this functionality.”

Plus, by sticking with one website for all screen sizes, businesses can generally save on Web design costs, as compared to attempting to maintain one site for desktops and laptops, a second for tablets, and a third for smartphones.

“Updates are also easier to apply to versions for all screen resolutions, since there is no need to work on multiple website versions,” said Michael Dobkowski, president of Glacial Multimedia, a Web design firm.

And a single website generally translates into higher rankings on search engines, given that all the traffic to your business goes to one location. Split up your presence with three websites—desktop, tablet and mobile—and search engines like Google will split the traffic ratings to your presence on the Web three ways.

But, generally speaking, the problem with dealing with the “tyranny of the tiny”—or ensuring that every website design looks good on the smallest of smartphones—is that responsive sites often render as ridiculous monstrosities on desktops and laptops, and are often difficult to use on bigger screens.

“I have been to many websites by big companies, and they have not adapted for responsive design,” said Sean B. Jamshidi, owner of DesignFacet, who has been designing websites for more than a decade and has little love for responsive Web design. “There must be a reason why.”

A wide berth
In addition to poster-sized headlines, you’ll often find that responsive websites make generous use of wide swaths of blank space, space that you must scroll through when using a desktop PC, but often look just fine on a smartphone.

Plus, responsive websites that need to feature a great deal of text—such as product descriptions, company backgrounders, customer testimonials and the like—often look more like train wrecks on a desktop.

One glaring example: On a desktop, the text on a responsive website often runs the full length of a 23-inch screen, so it will shrink down nice and tidy when viewed on a smartphone screen.  For the mobile user, that’s convenient, since the responsive website reconfigures text margins to fit a palm-sized screen. But for the desktop user, trying to read a sentence 23 inches long is not nearly as fun, unless you’re a giraffe.

(Moovweb’s responsive delivery push)

Said Russell Uresti, a responsive Web advocate and Web developer with Schoology (creator of a learning-management system): “Often, so much emphasis is made about mobile devices and making the site look good on a phone or tablet that designers will overlook extremely large monitors and fail to design for them. Which is, again, more of a failure of implementation than with the methodology.”

Incredibly, the scores of designers championing responsive Web design are either unaware of the unacceptable usability they’re creating for desktop and laptop users, or they’re silently willing to sacrifice desktop and laptop usability, all in the name of the iPhone and related trends.

“It kind of becomes a fanatical point of view that they keep about their work,” said Design Facet’s Jamshidi. “They design more for themselves than for the client.

Media Queries, for example, is an ever-expanding gallery of the best and brightest that responsive Web design has to offer from the responsive Web design community. It showcases dozens of examples of company Web presences that, when viewed on desktops, are simply bad.

The Republic of Quality, a Web design and marketing firm whose site is featured prominently on Media Queries as a shining example of responsive Web design done right, is actually emblematic of everything that is wrong with the design approach.

Visit the home page for the company, and you’ll find bloated text and graphics that look better suited for a children’s book than for a company trying to market to other businesses. Click on the site’s “Our Projects” page, and you’ll find text that runs the full length of a 23-inch desktop screen. Plus, you’ll be treated to one-sentence project descriptions that take four times longer to read on a desktop than they normally should because the text and line spacing is unnecessarily gigantic.

Ditto for its blog. If you like blogs that look more like posters on a desktop, you’ll love this one. Otherwise, not so much.

Meanwhile, you’ll find similarly (and unnecessarily) overblown text and graphics at another website showcased by Media Queries: the site for The Next Web. Ironically enough, The Next Web is a magazine, conference and education company that reportedly stays on the “bleeding edge” of where the Web is headed.

Here, using a desktop, you’ll find yourself scrolling through scores of encephalitic headlines and images on a home page that takes much longer to read through than necessary. And you’ll find a job board that would be much easier to work with on a desktop if it were one-third or even one-fourth its size.

Other designs heralded by Media Queries that leave many desktop users scratching their heads: Build, a site for a Microsoft-sponsored trade show; Paid to Exist, a personal growth site; and Modo Design Group, a Web design firm.

Mobile is not the leader
When challenged by desktop and laptop users regarding usability, champions of responsive Web design often insist that with the frenzied proliferation of smartphones and tablets, mobile is the de facto standard, and that the days of desktops and laptops are numbered. Any rational designer, they insist, most proceed with a “mobile first” strategy.  

Unfortunately, the statistics tell a starkly different story. In an April 2012 study conducted by comScore, which has been chronicling the Web’s evolution for many years, 91.8% of all devices connected to the Web were PCs. Only 5.2% of that traffic was from smartphones. As for tablets, a paltry 2.5% actually accessed the Web during the study period.

Granted, there have been millions of smartphones and tablets shipped since April 2012. But even so, Deloitte, a market research firm, predicted that for 2013, more than 80% of all Web surfing will still be done on desktops and laptops, according to Jolyon Barker, Deloitte’s managing director of global technology, media and telecommunications.

Put another way, sure, there are plenty of people on smartphones browsing the Net for a minute or so while waiting in line for their latte at Starbucks. But any serious and substantial use of the Web will continue to be overwhelmingly done on desktops and laptops.

Bottom line: The next time a Web designer shows up at your office promising to build a state-of-the-art, responsive website that will deliver a consistent and optimized user experience across the wide variety of devices and platforms that Web surfers use, make sure you read the fine print.

Fortunately, if you’re reading it on a responsive website, it’ll be the size of a wooly mammoth.