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Responsive real estate website design – a DIY project, Part 2

OK, it’s taken a lot longer than I expected, but it’s finally time for the “big reveal” of the new, mobile-responsive makeover of my company’s website, IntownElite.com. But first, some background on the project.

If you have a fairly simple site, consisting primarily of text with some photos, this can be fairly simple. A well-designed, responsive theme takes care of the rest, making your content look good on all devices, right out of the box. However, if you have more complex content, your workload can increase dramatically. Your site has to adjust for at least five different screen widths: above 1200px for laptops and desktops, under 1200px for tablets in landscape format, under 1000px for tablets in portrait format, under 768px for smart phones in landscape format, and under 480px for smart phones in portrait format. If you have design elements in tables, columns, or other complicated content, things can get challenging. It’s basically like having to design five versions of every page!

Responsive

Our new home page as seen on a laptop/desktop (left), and on an iPhone (right).

For me, one of my biggest concerns was what to do with my neighborhood guide maps. My Atlanta Zip Code map and Buckhead neighborhood map were made with Flash, and that doesn’t work on iOS devices. My Intown Atlanta neighborhood map was not made with Flash, but instead with images and Javascript. That’s better, but still, how do I make that usable on small screens? My first thought was to hire someone to redo all of my maps in responsive HTML5. I did find someone who could do that, but when you shrink these maps down to fit a smartphone screen, they basically become useless.

That’s when I came to a realization: good responsive design is not simply shrinking all of your content down to fit smaller screens. It’s also deciding what will be the best experience for users of mobile devices. When I’m at home on my MacBook with fast broadband access, I want the most feature-rich experience I can get. Give me all of the bells and whistles. When I’m on the road with my iPhone, perhaps with a marginal cellular data signal, the main thing I’m concerned about is page load speed. I still want the basic info, but I don’t want a bunch of extraneous stuff slowing me down.

Someone once said in a FB group that he didn’t like responsive design, because it just resulted in a “vertical mess.” He had a point. If you attempt to squeeze desktop full of information into a smartphone screen, the user will be scrolling ’till the cows come home (not to mention waiting that long for the page to load)!

So, first you have to decide what information to present to users of different mobile devices. Some of your information may be only appropriate for larger screens and broadband. What’s essential, and what’s just bogging down the experience? Then you have another question; from a technical perspective, how can I serve up different presentations to users of mobile devices versus desktop/laptop users? Well, there are two ways.

The first is with CSS. If there’s something that you just don’t want to display to visitors using small screens, you can set that to “display:none” for screens below a certain pixel width. Conversely, if there’s something you only want to display to visitors using small screens, you can set that to “display:none” for screens above a certain pixel width.  That effectively tells browsers, “show this to desktop users, and show that to mobile users.” I used that in some cases on my site, but that method comes with a drawback: speed. While “display:none” prevents that information from being presented, it still has to be loaded, and that can slow down page load times.

A better option is using the WP Mobile Detect plugin. With that, you can designate what information on your site should be loaded for which users. This plugin was a lifesaver for me, and was used extensively throughout my site, allowing me to optimize the experience for mobile users. (Note, if you’re using a caching plugin you’ll need to tweak some settings in there for WP Mobile Detect to work property. Feel free to contact me for details.)

That brings me to another point. What’s the first thing you do when checking out someone’s responsive website? Most people immediately do one of two things, either start resizing their browser width to check out how it looks on small screens, or go to a responsive design simulator, like Responsinator or  Responsive Design Checker. Those are handy tools, but may not give you a true representation of what a website looks like on a given device. Those tools simply show what are basically little browser windows, sized to the appropriate resolution of various mobile devices, but they don’t actually change the user agent to that of those devices. The user agent is what identifies the visitor’s device to your web server. It’s the way your analytics can tell what device a given visitor is using. It’s the way some sites redirect mobile users to their “m.” version of their site. It’s also what WP Mobile Detect uses to tell your web server what content to serve up to that visitor.

Depending on your provider, integrating IDX into a responsive design can be another challenge. While I’m a big fan of Diverse Solutions, their IDX handles mobile users a bit differently than I would prefer. Since dsSearchAgent itself is not mobile friendly, mobile visitors to any page on which dsSearchAgent is embedded are automatically and immediately redirected to their mobile IDX solution, dsSearchAgent Mobile.  I’d prefer to keep them on the page so they can read our content. With the help of IDX+, my dsIDXpress is now mobile-responsive, so I’d prefer to allow mobile visitors to view listings that way.  This also helps to reduce bounce-rate. So how can I accomplish this?

I simply wrap the dsSearchAgent script with the “nodevice” WP Mobile Detect shortcode. That tells the server not to load the dsSearchAgent script for visitors using any mobile device. Then I include my dsIDXpress content wrapped in the “device” WP Mobile Detect shortcode. You can see the result on my home search page. Desktop/laptop users get the dsSearchAgent search interface, while mobile users get a dsIDXpress search form.

Home Search Page - laptop vs iPad

Our IDX search page when viewed on a laptop (left) vs iPad (right)

This way, mobile users can search homes and remain on my site to read other content. Now, dsSearchAgent Mobile does have some advantages in that it is GPS-enabled. This allows buyers who are driving or walking by a house for sale to tap the “Nearby” button and find out what the price is, view photos, and contact you. (Does your mobile IDX do this? It should!) For that reason I have included buttons to give the mobile user the option to try the dsSearchAgent Mobile version, but nobody is force-redirected, which had been a pet peeve of mine.

Morningside

One of our neighborhood pages, standard view left, smart phone view right.

I used a similar tactic on my individual neighborhood pages. For example, if you visit my Morningside page on a standard computer and then on a smart phone, you can see how the experience is tailored for each device. The standard view has a lot more tools, including the map search, a nearby amenities map, etc. The smartphone version is slimmed-down to the essentials, which I think is more appropriate for mobile visitors.

So, now that I’m finished this DIY project, what are the takeaways? (Of course, my website is never really “finished,” I’m always adding content and tweaking things, but that’s another story.) The question is, would I do it again? While I’m very happy with how it finally turned out, I don’t know that I would take on such a large project myself again. I did like being able to control virtually every aspect of the site, but in retrospect, it sucked up way too much of my time. I may go into more detail in a follow-up post, but suffice it to say that I think next time I’d hire a pro to do the heavy lifting, then I could just take care of polishing off minor final details myself.

What do you think? Do you handle everything on your website, leave it all to a pro, or some mix in between?

About Mike McGee

My wife Tina and I own and operate Intown Elite Real Estate in Atlanta GA. Like most small business owners, I wear many hats. I'm the broker, IT support guy and amateur webmaster, among other things. I run a few websites, including my primary site at IntownElite.com, a niche site at JacksonLakeHouses.com covering lake homes near Atlanta, and others.

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