Responsive Design vs WP Mobile Theme : Which one?

Responsive WPThere’s a lot of buzz around. Everyone want to be on Mobile. Everyone want their WordPress Sites to be Mobile friendly. And, many WordPress Themes are marketing themselves to be Responsive (we will see about it soon) and there are Mobile WP Themes & Plugins around. So which one is for you?


By now, you should have been convinced that the needs of a Mobile Web User is different from a Desktop Web User. The Main difference come in the areas of:

  • Amount of Content
  • Organization of Content
  • Navigation
  • Optimal usage of Data & Bandwidth

Let’s understand the two options available to make your WordPress Site Friendly to the users visiting from a Mobile Device (let’s assume a Smartphone)

Option #1: Using a Theme with Responsive Design

A Responsive Design is one that can adapt itself gracefully to Devices with varied Display Characteristics like Desktop, Tablets and Mobiles. It is an extension of “code once view anywhere” principle, that does not require maintenance or changes to the Theme for multiple devices.

For those technically inclined, this is achieved using:

  1. Flexible Grids
  2. Flexible Media (like Images, Video etc.)
  3. CSS Media Queries

Grab a copy this book on Responsive Design, which is short but a very useful read.

So, what are the advantages of this approach?

  • One Theme for all. Less maintenance your Themes
  • No additional Plugins. That is one plugin less!
  • SEO not duplicated. SEO of your main site is applied across devices
  • Good Adaptability, the Site can easily adapt to a New Device that comes up with unique Display Characteristics

Are there any disadvantages? For sure, Yes.

  • Best Effort Approach. Cannot be completely optimized for every device
  • Only Visual Adaptation possible. No Content Adaptation (For example, you can say “Show this element different on various devices” but you cannot say “Show Element 1 on Tablets, Element 2 on Mobiles,…”
  • Mobile specific Advertising not possible
  • Web-app Mode (standalone mode) without the Browser Chrome is not possible
  • Navigation can sometime become crappy/cumbersome (read this)

Option #2: Mobile WP Themes

(Note: I will refer primarily to WP Touch which is one of the best Mobile WP Theme Plugins around)

With Mobile WP Themes, the approach is to have a specific WP Theme that is completely different from your Main Site Theme and optimized for Mobile Devices (and possibly Tablets).

It comes in the form of a Plugin, which takes care of presenting the Mobile/Tablet specific content, when the user arrives at your Site on the respective device.

Primary Advantages of this approach:

  • Complete Control of the Mobile Experience, without in anyway impacting the Main Site Design
  • Possibility of using the Web-App Mode where users can Bookmark your site for Native-like User Experience
  • Mobile or Tablet Specific Child Themes can be created, thus making the switch of Mobile Themes easier
  • Navigations and Icons are 100% optimized for Mobiles and Tablets
  • Custom Mobile Ads can be used, which does not interfere with Desktop Ads
  • Knowledge of CSS is not necessary for making changes, as required with the Responsive Design approach

However, the following are the Drawbacks with this approach:

  • Additional Plugin required
  • Separate Maintenance required for Desktop and Mobile Themes
  • SEO has to be carefully planned, as it may be duplicated
  • Some Plugin Branding may be required, unless you are ready to Pay for the Plugin


So which way should you head?

Go for a WP Theme with Responsive Design, if:

  • You have a fairly simple WP Site
  • Your primary aim is to make sure the Site performs reasonably well on various Devices
  • You have a fair understanding of CSS and can manage some aspects of Visual design, all by yourself
  • Your goal is to have great performance for your Site with minimum plugins

Go for a Mobile WP Theme, if:

  • You have a complex WP Site with a lot of Widgets, Sidebar/Topbar/Footer Content
  • You need Rich Performance on every Device, where your site is used
  • You can’t manage the Visual aspects of a Site like CSS etc.
  • You wish to provide Web-App like capabilities for users with Smartphones
  • You wish to offer Mobile Specific Customizations like Custom Ads
  • You understand the implication of an Additional Plugin
  • You understand the SEO and able to manage consistency across Themes
  • You have some cash to spare!
Hope this post helped you take a decision for your WordPress Site. If not, send me an email at “” and I offer “Free Consultation” over emails.
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  1. Scott Wyden Kivowitz says:

    I have been using WPTouch before they created the Pro version. Once Pro came out, I switched. I’ve loved it every since. However, once StudioPress built responsive capability into their framework and released a bunch of child themes – I disabled WPTouch Pro and am now using my theme for mobile.

    • Ashwin says:


      Even I tried the responsive Legacy Child theme, but somehow the Navigation sucks. I have temporarily switched back to WPTouch. However, I am still evaluating the responsive option by implementing a nice navigation pattern.

  2. Chris Agro says:

    Thanks for this article and the one on navigation you referenced. As a web designer I have built a number of Responsive-designed websites including my own. I am now considering rethinking building responsive sites mainly because they are very time consuming to create custom designs. I have looked at the responsive templates offered but many fail my test when viewing the demos with my Android phone (sometimes the images so not scale, or the sliders are not responsive, etc.) plus I have always custom designed projects for my customers. I used to build custom sites using Thesis (which is not responsive but now there are child theme framework solutions out for Thesis). As I continue to research Responsive versus WP Touch Pro the navigation is becoming more important to me. Even though I love Thesis, I do not care for how the responsive solutions to this framework display the navigation. For that reason I am now leaning towards designing in Thesis without concern for responsiveness and adding WP Touch Pro to all sites I build. Yes, the unique design may suffer with the mobile version but with mobile I think legibility, easy of use and control of what loads takes precedence. I cannot image my customers would ever complain that the mobile version of their website looks like other mobile sites. In my opinion, when it comes to mobile devices, the bottom-line is usability and legibility over aesthetics and uniqueness.


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