Any device, anytime, anywhere

Mobile internet users in the United States will surpass desktop Internet users this year, according to statistics provided by the federal government. Users are accessing the web from a variety of devices-from smart phones and tablets to high-definition televisions and wearables such as smart watches.

That rapid growth is changing the way websites are developed because mobile users expect the same user experience as a desktop user.

The biggest issue for smartphones or other small-screen devices is a site's formatting and display of content. To navigate through a traditional site, the user has to pinch, pan and scroll through the content. This is not a customer-friendly approach and leaves users frustrated.

With a smart phone in nearly every pocket, people expect local governments to make website content easily accessible across platforms.

Mobile v. responsive
The website visuals, structure and content should remain consistent for the user when the site is accessed from multiple devices, but it is unrealistic to build a site for every possible device and screen size. The most complete solution to this challenge is responsive design. In fact, it has been the standard for new web development since 2013.

Responsive design is not a specific piece of technology, like a software product or an application. Rather it is a set of techniques used to ensure web content is displayed in a format that suits the width of the device used to access it. This approach is a significant departure from traditional website development.

Another approach to delivering content to mobile devices is creating a mobile website.

A mobile site is a separate version from the main website that has been optimized for mobile browsing. It has a web address different from the main website, and the content must be managed separately. As new devices are introduced, mobile sites have to be updated.

Responsive websites are different from mobile-specific sites. A responsive site uses the same web address across devices and content updates are made from one location. Because responsive design only considers the browser's width, updates or reconfigurations are not needed.

While going the route of responsive design may entail additional design and front-end development time, the savings are realized by having to only develop, manage and maintain one site.

Expectations of government websites
Customer-centric government means responding to customers" needs and making it easy to find and share information and accomplish important tasks.

It all boils down to accessibility. Requirements of information technology accessibility in the government began in 1998 when Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to include Section 508.  Under Section 508 and the Americans with Disabilities Act, state and local governments must provide anyone with disabilities equal access to services and programs. The U.S. government has endorsed responsive design as a better approach to providing greater accessibility to government information and resources.

The typical lifecycle of a website is two to five years. Because of the complexities of transitioning existing content/layouts to responsive design, the ideal time to make the move usually coincides with building a new site.