I was recently in the unfortunate position of needing to buy a new washer and dryer. If you’ve ever shopped for a major appliance, you know how agonizing it can be. I was immersing myself in technical specifications, spin speeds, energy efficiency, child locks, motor warranty, colors, and more. It felt like I was going to night school for washing machine repair. Replacing a major appliance is not like replacing your favorite worn-out pair of shoes. It involves extensive comparison shopping (and meanwhile the dirty laundry is piling up).

I would do a search on my laptop and then keep researching with my tablet over lunch and on my smartphone between meetings and throughout the day. Jumping from site to site on various devices was an eye-opening experience in responsive Web design (RWD). Few sites were optimized for mobile, making it difficult to find the information I needed on the go. I kept hitting walls and abandoning sites until I found one built for the mobile browser.

In the end? My dollars went to a local store that matched the price I found on a big appliance retailer’s mobile site. The big guy’s mobile experience lacked a smooth search and comparison process. Had the site been easier to navigate, and more responsive, I would not have gone out of my way to visit the local shop.

Think Behavior, Not Only Devices

Much of the conversation around responsive design has been limited to screen size, platform, and orientation. Optimizing sites for multiple devices is essential, especially as people increasingly rely on phones and tablets for browsing and social networking. But flexible image dimensions are just the beginning. The full potential for responsive design is vast and exciting.

What if your site could move and change with the visitor’s behavior? Using visitor data, geolocation, customer profiles, and more, we tune our content and design to the individual. Imagine a mom trying to read a recipe off her tablet while five kids scream in the living room. How about a bachelor watching TV and surfing his phone alone, a college student researching a term paper in his or her dorm, or a grandma downloading audio books from her recliner. The optimal Web experience will be different for each of these individuals. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, and even responsive design doesn’t always go far enough.

Visitor Intent Matters

Behavior-driven responsive design seeks to understand the visitor’s needs and intent and to use this information to influence the order and emphasis of content, navigation, and design aesthetic. In her post on this topic, Valle Hansen gives an excellent illustration of why visitor intent matters:

“Practically speaking, if I go to Gap.com on my desktop, I’m probably browsing for new jeans, and I’m probably buying them too. If I go to Gap.com on my smartphone, I’m likely trying to find the bricks-and-mortar store that’s closest to me, or access my store’s hours. In that case, I don’t want to sift through all of Gap.com’s content to get to the store locator on my smartphone; I want my smartphone to assume the store locator is one of my main goals, and make that a priority over other things like browsing for jeans.”

Likewise, when I was shopping for a washer and dryer on my tablet and smartphone, I wanted a quick-loading overview of the product’s description, key specifications, and aggregated reviews. A snapshot of the most important product information is much better suited to handheld screens than a full spread of product images, like I might want on a 27-inch desktop monitor. Show me a simple column of easy-to-read content on my phone, then let me have the full browsing and checkout experience when I whip out the laptop. I also wanted to feel at ease making such a significant purchase through my smartphone. On a deeper level, responsive design can engender trust: if you take care of me and respond to my needs as I shop, I come to expect the same in purchase and delivery.

Resizing content isn’t a panacea, and it doesn’t eliminate the demand for a deeper level of customer personalization. As always, your audience should shape your content and design, however they happen to be accessing your site.

Whole Person Design

As Carrie Cousins points out in her “Ten Things You Need to Know about Responsive Design,” RWD is not merely mobile design. It is “whole Web design.” I’d like to take this one step further and think of it as whole person design. Most of us lead busy lives, and strive to be flexible and adaptable as we transition between family life, work, the classroom, social time, the gym, and more. Responsive design should have the same aims that people do.

Truly responsive design can’t be achieved with a one-and-done cascading style sheets (CSS) overhaul. It is an evolving process based on customer interaction and robust visitor data. Designers, digital marketers, and conversion rate optimizers (CROs) must focus on leveraging the data to deliver enhanced personalization. If your site can speak to the individual’s needs and desires, while putting the most valuable information up-front in a readable format, visitors will quickly become loyal customers. And isn’t that the point of RWD: to be so convenient and useful visitors won’t bother looking anywhere else?

Let’s Revolutionize RWD

Responsive design is still a fairly young concept, and we are sure to see rapid growth in the coming year. Let’s focus our growth with insight into users’ device-specific goals and behaviors. Think about what your visitors are looking for and hoping to accomplish with each site entry. I’m confident a behavior-driven, whole person approach can revolutionize the already revolutionary strategies of responsive design, leading to happier customers and higher conversion rates.