Why Clients Don’t Care About Responsive Web Design

There isn’t a web design blog, tutorial, or template site on the market right now that isn’t touting “responsive web design” as an absolute must. Simultaneously, web designers are getting continued downward price pressure for their services. The #1 pain I hear from web pros is that they can’t charge enough for their work.

So what gives?

Common sense would urge us to believe that designing websites that reach more users (desktop, tablet, and mobile) would in turn fetch us more expensive fees for our services. On top of that, a responsive website usually requires less updating for our client. Instead of having separate mobile and tablet versions, our client gets to update one single piece of content, and the web design automatically morphs to the proper device. Sounds good to me.

Image Source: Responsive Web Design via Shutterstock.

However, the problem for most web designers is that making websites responsive equals more work. And getting paid what your worth is already difficult. But responsive web design is quickly becoming the new norm. Like writing semantic code that is cross-browser compliant, now it’s just how you are expected to build.

Responsive Web Design Takes More Effort

Creating a site that works on any device takes a lot of planning. You can’t just have blocks that automatically snap into vertical positions to make a website effective on multiple devices. And navigation can’t always just turn into a “menu” button.

If you are selling a responsive site to a client, you need to anticipate that the following areas of your project process are going to increase dramatically:

  1. Design (you now have to design for 3+ breakpoints)
  2. Content (you need to make sure your content makes sense when it’s broken down to a smaller size above/below other content)
  3. Coding (the more breakpoints, the more code)
  4. Testing (you need to test on a lot of devices throughout your build)
  5. Revisions (updates to the design of the site take longer to deal with on all of the items above, for every change)

If we have to do more labor to make it work, why aren’t we able to charge a lot more money?

It’s because clients don’t understand the word responsive. Our prospects don’t care about the how, they just care about the outcome.

The Disconnect

The phrase responsive web design doesn’t have any meaning whatsoever to anyone outside of our field. There has been a lot more mainstream coverage on the topic recently, but I would argue that the meaning registers at about the same level as an acronym like HTML and CSS to the typical small business owner.

Too much of our industry glazes over the stage in selling where they build value for what they are proposing. So when a client sees “Responsive Design” in their Scope of Work, they usually ask to remove it.

In my sales consulting work with web designers, one of the questions I ask is how they typically present the idea of responsive web design to their clients. The response usually sounds more like a Wikipedia definition than a value presentation.

Often I hear, “my clients really want mobile, but they aren’t willing to pay for me to make the site responsive.”

So what’s the problem? Are we charging too much?

What I Do Differently

When sitting with a client, my website proposal process involves a lot of discovery. I like to have three to four meetings with my clients to understand their business as well as I can. Much of the time I spend with them is finding the core pains that exist in their business and then building value for a solution that solves those pains.

This conversation often sounds like this:

“Why do you need a new website?”

“Our website is really outdated. It was designed by a friend of a friend several years ago and has fallen out of date. Also, our website looks terrible on my iPhone!”

At this point, a lot of web designers start talking about responsive web design and how they are going to fix that problem. But this solution, stated this way, is cosmetic at best.

Without any context for what kind of impact responsive design will have on their business, adding it to their project will only yield the value equivalent to their level of personal embarrassment.

This may or may not have the financial effect I desire. So I keep digging.

To get paid what I’m worth, I need to provide real evidence that my plan is going to solve a quantifiable problem and help them mitigate a concrete risk. The conversation continues…

“Are you aware of how much traffic you currently get from mobile devices?” I ask.

“No, is there a way to find that out?”

“Absolutely. More importantly, have you started to think about what type of content and experience a person on a mobile device might be interested in having?”

“Not really…can you explain the options?”

“Of course. Going from desktop to mobile, we can assume that the visitor is on the go. They might have just been recommended your business from a friend at dinner, or they might be trying to find your business (ahem) while driving. We want to make that process as easy as possible. This requires additional design work, but more importantly, we need to strategize about the objectives we have for your visitors when accessing from various devices. The idea here is to help drive more people to your business, not add some trendy widget to your website. Do you need more customers?”


Now, this is oversimplified, but the root of everyone’s pain is that they need more customers. But you can’t walk in and lead with, “I’m going to get you more customers by using RESPONSIVE DESIGN!!!” It just doesn’t work that way.

Once I’ve provided some context for why mobile and tablet designs can help them get more customers, it is a great time to work with them to discover what kind of traffic their website gets and from what types of devices.

I sold a lot of restaurant sites over the tenure at my web agency. For restaurants, mobile is not an option. If the owner were considering passing on mobile, a quick look at Google Analytics would show that about 10-20% of their traffic was happening from mobile devices.

Quick tip: If your prospect doesn’t have Google Analytics installed yet, offer to do it for them on their existing site for free so that you can have some actionable data to review with your prospective customer. Schedule a follow-up meeting to review it after a week.

If the evidence didn’t support a need for investing in a responsive approach, I would pass on offering it. But more often than not these days, the data will back you up.

In addition, there was always the option of making the case that with a better-optimized mobile site mobile device traffic would increase.

The Punch

Once it became time to propose a solution, I would have what I call, “the mobile conversation.” This conversation is pretty simple and goes something like this:

The web has evolved past desktop access. Mobile phones and tablets are experiencing very fast adoption. I had a chance to review your traffic stats, and it appears that you currently have X% of your traffic coming from mobile devices. Were you aware of that?”

No, not really.”

It’s always good to have the data. There are two main directions we can go with supporting mobile for your business: #1 We can make your site mobile compatible. Have you been to a website where you can see the whole desktop version and then you have to pinch in to find the right button and links?”

Yes, that is really annoying!”

At a bare minimum, we will at least make your site compatible, this will cost the least. #2 we will build your site ‘responsively,’ which means that your website will actually be device-friendly no matter if it’s phone or tablet. Let me show you the difference between the two on your phone.”

I like the one that’s easier.”

I agree, I think you’re customers will prefer to use that one too.”

Too many web designers leave “Responsive Site Design” as a Scope of Work item and never have a conversation about its relevancy and what it really means for their client’s business.

I typically add at least 50-100% to the design and build portions of my projects to make the site responsive. And in my experience, my clients were happy to pay for the additional work.

I invite you to use this method in your web design business to see how it changes your relationship with explaining responsive web design to your prospective customer. At the end of the day, it only matters if it helps you build value and, in turn, add additional revenue to your web design business.


  • Allen Resha

    I usually don’t read long posts. I almost did the skim on your post, but I decided to read on. After reading the entire post I realized a big mistake I was making in proposals. When I am proposing services and costs to clients I am not building enough value. Especially when the lead/client is not somebody that I know outside of the first meeting. I usually try to do a quick sell when I am missing a valuable opportunity.


  • Tanya Gunning

    Awesome post, Brent! Thanks for this :)

  • First, I appreciate that you’re encouraging clients (and especially restaurants) toward mobile friendly/responsive sites. That being said:

    1. “The phrase responsive web design doesn’t have any meaning whatsoever to anyone outside of our field.” – I disagree. We have clients specifically asking for RWD by name. Granted, they don’t understand the techincal details, but they do know it means their site will work across the spectrum of devices.

    2. “Of course. Going from desktop to mobile, we can assume that the visitor is on the go.” – No, you absolutely cannot make that assumption. More and more reports show that mobile is used in the home more than “on the go”. This is also due to the fact that for many, mobile phones are their only connection to the internet. I don’t want someone hiding or showing different content to me based on my device.

    3. “I typically add at least 50-100% to the design and build portions of my projects to make the site responsive.” – This is the one that really gets me. For the vast majority of sites out there, RWD should NOT be a line item. Mobile support should NOT be a line item. It’s simply how sites should be built these days. Including mobile support as a line item today sounds about as logical as charging for standards based design (vs table based) a decade ago. This is especially important when you look at traffic from mobile devices. The majority of our clients have mobile traffic between 14% and 45%. Adding mobile support as an extra cost is like adding a line item for supporting a major desktop browser. But of course we don’t do that. That’s just silly.

    Yes, RWD does take longer, but in my experience, not 50-100% longer. You just need to adjust your base timelines for each step in the process to make up for the increase. And if it is taking that much longer, then you need to take a hard look at your process.

  • xupamostodos

    Usually bad reviews about responsive web design come from people that aren’t front-end “gurus”, Nowadays a front-end web designer can build a webpage in a 1/3 of the time )compared to a few years ago) by using HTML/CSS/javascript frameworks that already do all of the responsive “work”.

  • Is this a bad review about responsive web design? Maybe I missed that…

  • Hi Erik,

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment. Here are some responses in order of your points:

    1) That’s like a client asking for “SEO” because they don’t see their website at #1 position before they even understand if there is any traffic for that term or their industry in search to begin with. Just because a client asks for something by name in my experience doesn’t give me reason to give it to them. That is what sales discovery is for. I agree that the term is becoming more available to business owners, but not rampant. I took a look at your website, your speaker deck, and several of your blog posts. From what I can see, you spend a lot of time presenting on mobile and responsive design (total props to you). I would anticipate if that is part of how you establish yourself as an expert, than yes, many clients will probably show up at your door asking for responsive.

    2) Thanks for the articles and research, I will read up.

    3) I agree with your statement that all sites should be built to support mobile and tablet in a responsive/native fashion, however, on the pricing front, I disagree with you big time. Multi-device support is complicated. Building sites for a desktop environment AND mobile even with responsive adds a lot of time to design, testing, and deployment. Yes, there are some frameworks out there, but as you build sites of significance, the amount of additional design and testing involved in deploying a solid multi-device site is significant. What I would hate to see happen is that a designer would read your comments and feel obligated to do that additional work for no additional fee. That isn’t fair to the designer. If you are building a site that takes longer to build and reaches a broader audience, then you should be compensated.

    To clarify, I would add 50-100% to the design portion of a website project, not the entire project build. So if a custom design was $4-5k, mobile/tablet support would add at least an additional $2k to the project.

  • Martin Firth

    1. Saying that they ask for it by name but don’t understand it means EXACTLY that the phrase has no meaning to them.

    2. Agree that people might not actually be ‘on the go’, but telling this to your client puts it into a perspective they can understand. You could explain the ins and outs of mobile browsing habits, but saying they are ‘on the go’, although not entirely accurate, still conveys the idea that concessions need to be made in a simple way.

    3. I agree it shouldn’t be a line item, but it works as a business tool. Not everyone can afford to say ‘pay for a responsive website or forget about it’. Having something deductible from your quote gives you flexibility in the case of budget restraints. Also for me, supporting all browsers occurs almost by accident. Building a site in a modular, responsive fashion IS a huge step in the build process, and does take me at least 50% longer. Taking a look at your site and blog, they are very simple layouts and may have only added an extra 10% to build time, but sites with 20+ responsive elements can be super tedious to code.

    My two cents :)

  • Martin Firth

    Careful with the exclamation mark before your equals, could totally flip your intended meaning :D

  • Ford Henley

    I deal with people who don’t real understand it and are not sold on the idea. Perhaps it just needs to be re-branded into something clients will find value in like ‘Device Compatibility Design’ or something like that. Just an idea.

  • Martin you just showed your developer self :)

  • Brent,

    Thanks for responding. I absolutely agree with you that a designer/developer should never do the additional work for free. I guess what it comes down to is that in this multi-device world, where mobile and tablet traffic is growing like crazy, we need to radically change not only our development practices, but our business practices as well. It will take time for site owners to understand why this is important, but the days of quickly cutting a PSD mockup which results in a fixed width site are gone. It’s our jobs as professionals to guide them through this (as you outlined well above). The fact of the matter is, to do it right does take longer (thank you for clarifying your point on that). Which means that quality websites are going to cost more than they used to. There’s value in what we do and we should be paid accordingly. But stats prove that in most cases, mobile support shouldn’t be optional. That’s why I advocate adjusting timelines and pricing structures that will allow for the extra time needed to allow for the additional design, development and testing required to do it right.

  • Hey Marin,

    1. I think the fact that they know the term, and what it accomplishes is enough. I would be shocked if they knew the term “media query”. But the get the gist of it.

    2. Fair enough. Just as long as it doesn’t result in hiding content from the mobile user just because we assume they’re not going to need it.

    3. Yeah, my site is about as simple as it gets, and definitely should not be used as an example of increased timelines due to RWD support. But if a site is built in a “mobile first” way, then creating the markup for a responsive site isn’t that different from the whole “progressive enhancement” approach that we’ve followed for years.

  • Michael Meininger

    Going to try and keep it short…

    In my experiences, clients are realizing that they need a mobile presence. I feel it is a disservice to not bring RWD to the table, even if the client is ignorant to fluid designs. A mobile presence is so important in marketing as well as UX.

  • Stephen Lee

    Mr. Weaver…! I should have known it was you…lol I mean that in a good way. Great advice given here.

  • That is Exactly what I was thinking Allen.

  • Thanks so much Brent for the great article. I have not had much problem selling RWD but I have not been selling it as well as I should be. Your article helps me put it into words. I will use these concepts in a group presentation I will be doing soon.

  • Ricardo Torres

    I agree with you. But in my experience a RWD (mobile first, of course) project usually takes 40-70% longer :(
    PS: I started working with RWD in early 2011.

  • xupamostodos

    i meant reviews with long negative points about responsive design

  • xupamostodos

    RWD doesn’t take longer for experienced front-enders, takes much less time, you just have to master the technology and use the right frameworks.

  • Mike

    Thanks Brent for a great article. I am just starting the process of setting up by myself, no previous experience and learning as I go. Your article I hope will stead me good when discussing requirements with future clients. Found all the comments useful too, so thanks to everyone else too. I have still to learn to design responsively though, can anyone recommend any good resources to learning responsive design? Thanks.

  • Allen Resha

    I will check it out. Very busy on projects now, but will bookmark. Would you like me to message you via Twitter or email once I read?

  • Allen Resha

    I will be more careful. Thanks for looking out. :D

  • karks88

    Excellent post! Very easy for those of us in the industry to get excited about different technologies, but it’s just as hard to explain its value to a client.

  • I think the advice on how to talk to prospective clients is really good. Thanks for that. Most of my client don’t seem to know what responsive design is, and I find a little bit of leading question and presenting it the right way can really get across the importance of it.

  • shelley giese

    You have to be careful with using all those frameworks, they often end up adding tons of useless code that expand the page size and that is BAD for mobile viewing…..as for charging more, I am having to go to a template starting point more and more in my design work to save time…..and to make sure it works, there are more hacks and workarounds now than before it seems. And the creativity is gone, all sites are starting to look the same. My clients won’t pay much more for their websites especially as lots of hosting companies are getting into the “use our website builder” free with hosting deals which often offer responsive as well. I would love to make $4000 and up for a custom site but that is not what people are willing to pay in my location. I wonder if other designers are facing the same problem as me. My sites were creative and unique, my clients look at my portfolio and want that creativity and unique look but they won’t get it and responsive too…it is impossible! If I went back to school for marketing and business I bet they are still teaching about having a “unique selling proposition”, making your business “stand out from the crowd”, blah, blah…but the design industry does not talk about that anymore because we can’t cover all the bases anymore, there are just too many bases, browsers, variables, breakpoints…..I don’t even want to know what comes next. We can’t give our clients unique anymore and that is a sad fact about where the industry is going. One thing that has not changed though is all my clients still use laptops and desktops all day at their office or place of business, so “mobile first” might be jumping the gun a bit.

  • I don’t think there was any negativity about responsive website design here, but instead was about how to position responsive design in a sales conversation to get paid for what we are worth in the project. In a way this article is a defense for responsive websites, trying to make it lucrative for all web professionals instead of it being a way for clients to make us add more value/work into a project for no additional return. You see many people/agencies now delivering responsive websites for the same or less than they were building desktop websites before, especially ones using DIY frameworks.

  • slapstickj

    I disagree that responsive sites need 3 breakpoints. Tablets are irrelevant. They can look exactly the same as a desktop version of a site without any loss of quality. This will cut down on both design and development cost.
    Above all, give people a way to switch from the mobile version of a site to the desktop version! All I see of responsive sites is that they automatically feed my phone the mobile version even if that is NOT what I want to see. Why would ANYONE assume that just because I am on a mobile device I do not want to see what the desktop version of the site looks like?
    I personally hate mobile versions of almost every site I’ve visited. Why? Because they remove things from the user experience that are present in the desktop version. This is especially true of site navigation. Developers try to be clever instead of figuring out how to most easily display navigation for visitors, so they cram all the navigation down into a little 3-lined button in the upper left corner of the screen. Ridiculous!

  • Joe Watkins

    Good article Brent!..

    Hey Allen (not sure if you are a JS dev or not.. but lets pretend..) I suggest using the strict equals operator !== and heck you can even charge more for it because it takes longer to type. :) However,..I’m not sure if you should gouge your client for something that should come automatic to you as a professional, is a better choice,.. and that took 30% longer to do as a line item.

    A “website” is responsive by nature..you are forcing it not to be if it is not.

    Brent makes an awesome point that RWD should effect the entire process all the way back to discovery phase.

    After doing a lot of responsive projects I’ve found ways to make room for any extra time RWD can take. Below are some time savers that may help a team out:

    1. While not a great solution for every project, dropping IE8 and below support alone can open up dev time for any extra time RWD may bring your team.

    2. Shifting some design choices from the design team over to the development team can save time as well so your design team is not making 75 comps for different screen sizes.

    3. Code reuse can save you time as well. Once you have a solid responsive grid / framework setup whether it is custom or 3rd party you are saving huge amounts of time. Code for non-responsive sites are a lot less setup for reuse and specific to that project, generally speaking.

    4. Involving the design and dev team in the quoting process can get you a more accurate cost estimate as well.

    5. Only have on your staff developers and designers that are on top of current design and coding practices and that strive to stay up to date as individuals..otherwise they are wasting time and should be phased out.

    6. Get familiar with all the awesome new tools out there that drastically effect design/development time.. there are tons out there!

    Heck.. even trends like ‘Flat Design’ are time saver gifts that we aren’t really even aware of at times. It takes 25% less time to design and code a button that is ‘flat’ and void of images or gradients.. are we charging 25% less for that?

    I like to use this model: hourly rate x estimated hours to pull off project + a little padding to protect yourself. Do not blink twice if you feel like that $ amount seems high..you are worth it and can prove it. :)

  • Jake Cattrall

    ctrl+f -> “bootstrap”… 0 of 0??
    If you want to cheaply achieve responsive design (in both time and resources) use twitter bootstrap.

  • amboy00

    I really really enjoyed reading this. Okay, I kind of didn’t. But I liked that I didn’t.

    It’s really easy for us on THIS side of wall to know why RWD is important and why everyone should care. That’s not what this article is about. It’s about understanding from a very realistic point of view the perception of our clients.

    Nothing here states that what we’re building is wrong, it’s a wake up call that we still have to help our clients understand and in a meaningful way.

  • Evert Albers

    My clients are starting to request mobile-friendly designs by themselves these days, so the article is bit late. Still, an inspiring read.

  • s_mccoy

    If you’re talking about the iPad and desktop then yes, you’re correct, tablet support isn’t a MUST HAVE for iPads. However, given the variation in other tablets on the market thanks to Android they will look vastly different from one to the next and supporting multiple breakpoints is a MUST. It’s becoming more common to not break at device widths and simply make adjustments to the design as the window size shrinks. Tools like Reflow and Macaw will hopefully make it easier to identify where these issued reside but we’re in the early stages of these tools being a good starting point for design and code instead of just a handy reference.

  • xupamostodos

    You know you can customize frameworks to have exactly what you need from them, I think till 200kb per load is a good goal, and is a less than an hour customization to have the framework load only for your needs. Beside that I build everything from scratch, I don’t need to reuse templates for using frameworks or to save time, I already have my own stuff, I think a good front-ender already have all the base prepared and improve it during the time of work. I think web designers and front-enders around are overpriced, I can’t imagine why someone will take more than 20US$/hour for this kind of work, so if you take a full week(8 hours per business day) for a front-end work I don’t agree it should be payed above 800US$

  • xupamostodos

    most known development frameworks come by default for mobile, this is a trend we can’t ignore

  • benplum

    Everything here convinces me you’re doing it wrong.

  • dnb

    1. I seriously doubt you have clientS asking for it by name. All but 30 of our 110 clients are Fortune 100, about 60% of them spending a $1MM-$15MM a QUARTER with our company; and I’m taken aback when I hear anything about “Mobile first” or “responsive design.” Of course, TYPICALLY it’s their internal design team talking about these terms… Certainly not the guy/gal (aka, CEO, CTO, Marketing/Advertising Directors, etc) signing off on work orders and cutting the checks. Also, I know the term “brain surgery,” but I sure don’t know how to perform it.. Just because someone knows the term “Responsive Design” does NOT mean they know what it takes to accomplish it… In my opinion, you are a great example of this.

    2. Actually yes you CAN make that assumption. Stand in any public area, and count the population actively using their mobile devices. Also, I call even more exaggeration about reports showing mobile used more at home than on the go. Cite your resources if you plan on having anyone believe you. Right now I feel like you’re just being childish and making up stories.

    3. More generalization here… You assume every site should be mobile. Wrong. Some applications or websites have no need, or desire, to be mobile.

    Also, let’s go ahead and stop being idiots and referring to mobile at all. Responsive design has nothing to do with mobile; it has to do with interaction on different surfaces. Heard of a 10-foot design? How about a 30-foot? Try taking a device large enough to be used from 10 feet back and call it mobile, and see how silly you look.

    Now, back on point, your generalization on a mobile site is “simply how sites should be built these days,” is like saying your car should come with gasoline, offroad tires, and extra lighting kits so you can go racing in the desert. First off, you have to consider no one is just going to give you these materials for free; and certainly not giving away the labor of adding them.. No matter how hard or easy it is. Secondly, consider I might never go offroad. Why should it be included? Why would I want it?
    Lastly, generalizing design as a time frame, without scope of work, simply proves your inexperience with practically any form of work. “How long is that burger going to take for drive-thru” is just as important to customers as “how long until I see my site on my device.” Something as simple as a burger, that’s a rinse-and-repeat process should be super simple to quote a timeframe. Something as complex as a 100-screen desktop application will require extreme scrutiny, and considerations for interaction design as well as usability. And of course, any good designer will do usability tests, which of course takes time, and causes more iterations.
    So honestly, 50-100%, is really giving the customer a great deal, if you’re doing your job right.

    If I haven’t made myself clear, I want to right now: Your response reeks of inexperience, and possibly a social disorder.

    You, “sir,” are being bratty and arrogant, and exaggerating and generalizing far too much.

  • Raivo Laanemets

    It’s not only about looks and breakpoints. Tablets are not same as desktop because most tablets have touch screen and most desktop don’t have. Do not neglect usability and put visual looks over it.

  • Raivo Laanemets

    Yes, frameworks help, and they help everyone willing to use them. But this also means that standing out from the crowd is harder. If everyone else is improving, you need to improve more to stay competitive. I expect the price of outstanding designs increase a lot compared to “common” designs.

  • OceanNorthMedia

    Reading all this I think some of the argument is wrong, some right. Most clients and small businesses I deal with don’t know what responsive web design is unless they are technically aware and even then it needs explaining. The benefits are not just about reaching a larger audience as most sites are viewable on any device (albeit you have to zoom in) it is about making the user experience better and future proofing a site.

    If stats show their customers are not going to their site via mobile devices that much currently they certainly will be a few years down the road. Most small businesses cannot afford to redesign and redevelop their site every few years and so you are trying to keep them ahead of the game.

    You are providing not only a valuable service by giving them a responsive site you are giving them valuable advice on why their business needs it and the future of the web. By adding in the extra work it takes in testing across multiple devices and adjusting where necessary the css for those devices you are adding a valuable service and saving the client money in the longer term. This is what most clients want to hear. It is always about the bottom line.

    Yes we should build responsive sites as the norm. Should we charge more for that? Yes, absolutely, just not excessively.

  • tomhermans

    it’s very simple. there’s a big rise in visitors from all kinds of devices, big and small. and people are online, everywhere, all the time. Also increasing.
    RWD is the only option that responds best to this trend.
    So if you want to miss the boat, annoy visitors and lose traffic and conversion, go ahead, keep making desktop sites..

  • I fully agree with your views.

    50%-100% price increase seems like pretty good deal (if not the minimal price increase required).

    The amount of added conceptualisation, not to mention doing 3-4 layouts as opposed to just one ( equals to almost 2-3 times more time needed in the design phase). Not to mention that the RWD workflow currently is still a mess (and I got into adobe CC to only realise their Edge series is still underdevelopment )

    And is it just me or that many RWD websites looks like clones of each other? lol~

  • Edwin Lynch

    Sure. Don’t talk about it don’t even mention RWD, but with the plethora of free and cheap website buildings services, and mobile phones, just build an RWD site. Yes, it has to be done for the same price, but hey, that’s competition. Maybe we’re all just adjusting to the lack of opportunity for “a quick buck”. Welcome to Capitallism.