It’s Not Responsive Web Building, It’s Responsive Web Design

For an industry that generates probably more buzzwords than any other, we love to pretend to shun them. So, unless you’ve been living in a cabin in the woods for the last year, you’ve likely been bashed over the head with this term: Responsive Web Design (RWD).

This is the latest in a long line of terms that will eventually spawn thousands of articles, hundreds of books, generate tons of debate within the industry — if it hasn’t done so already. Like every new movement within our community this one has its supporters and detractors. Although, the detractors seem to be few and far between.

Mediaqueri.es
Mediaqueri.es – The latest gallery focusing on “Responsive Web Designs”

I haven’t seen the perspective of RWD as much from a UX/design lens, although there have been a handful. We’ve lived with it for a while, tossed it around, written some how-to posts, tested out some things, and now have a gallery of examples (whether or not they are the “right” examples remains to be seen). It’s embedded into our industry and here to stay for a while.

The Circles of RWD

Most of the posts leave me quite confused as to what we are actually talking about and what RWD really means. I’ve tried to group the debates/perspectives for my own understanding. Let’s call them circles — it’s just how all the cool kids like to group things these days. I give you: The Circles of Responsive Web Design.

It’s an Approach
When the RWD made its world premiere it was positioned as a technique. The focus was around the complexity of designing content for the variety of screen sizes and resolutions. The goal of RWD is to deliver that same content to any web-enabled device and offer a fully functional experience without affecting the user — for example, resizing the browser, or, seeing only part of the site because it was designed for something larger.

In many ways RWD has always been around. The ability to create a fluid website didn’t just appear out of thin air recently. We are also used to native applications that adjust fluidly. But, that was when the desktop was huge (figuratively and literally). So, it makes sense that the expectation in this new world for our websites to follow the same pattern. For this circle it is essentially a push saying, “We know people are going to view this content in many different ways, so instead of trying to guess, or, build this site 15 times (and then every time something else comes along), let’s just build this sucker responsively.”1

It’s a Philosophy
For this circle it’s like the next coming: RWD will save us from our fixed-width and “best viewed in [BrowserName]” sins. One of the biggest advocates of RWD, Jeffrey Zeldman says:

“… an evolutionary milestone in the development of web and interaction design as a practice and as an industry.”

This circle says it’s not just a tool, or technical approach. It’s a philosophy for anything related to web design. What do they mean by, anything? It means that it’s just how it is. It’s an inherent part of web design. Basically, when we create a website we shouldn’t be deciding if it should be a responsive site or not, it just will BE one. No question. If it’s unresponsive, well, as Andy Clarke says:

“[it] isn’t web design, it’s something else. If you don’t embrace the inherent fluidity of the web, you’re not a web designer, you’re something else. Web design is responsive design, Responsive Web Design is web design, done right.”

It’s a Trend
This circle feels that RWD is another passing trend and technical buzzword, and really doesn’t solve much of anything since it isn’t turning out to be the trumpeted savior that the second circle claims it to be.

The criticisms for it tend to fall on the technical side of things, as well as the practicality for businesses to implement it. It causes a rethinking of many things like the content framework and redesign effort. They also argue that technologies like @media-queries and javascript are still not consistently supported by many mobile browsers.

Although it’s still a very young approach/philosophy, this group is not too happy with it so far.

A Designer’s Perspective

Many discussions around RWD feel very technical. It’s not Responsive Web Building, it’s Responsive Web Design. Seeing a website perfectly on every screen is a beautiful idea. The easy design answer is “it depends” when talking about the usefulness of RWD. This is obviously the safe bet. So I will try to formulate my opinion without giving that same answer.

“But to be truly ‘responsive’? I believe that requires an understanding of the human on the other side of the screen, and, most importantly the context they are in.”James Pearce

Native applications offer (arguably) a superior experience, because they are designed for that device, specifically. Delivering the same web app to every device is a usability nightmare. Interactions on various devices deserve their own considerations. We can get a lot of information about technically how the person is accessing the content, however we can’t see how they are interacting with it. Well, we can, but that would mean interacting with people *gasp*!

Each device has a form factor and falls into a different device class 2. For example, with the television you might be leaning back and are 10-feet away, interacting using a remote.

“While it’s possible to have a single user interface work across more than one device class, developing a single interface that works across all device classes usually results in significant compromises or bare-bones experiences that don’t take advantage of what makes each device class excel (or conversely, rich experiences that fail to load/work on lower end devices).”Luke Wroblewski

We know we should absolutely be designing for mobile. Although most people’s idea for that is creating something for the desktop, then tearing out some elements, rearranging some things and then calling it mobile ready. And, while we’re at it, what the heck does mobile mean these days? Most of us think of it as people on the move, or always being in distracting situations, however some data seems to contradict that, showing people comfortably at home 3:

- 93% of people use their smartphones at home
- 62% of people use their smartphones watching the tube
- 39% of people use their smartphones while poopin’

The iPad is mostly considered a “portable” device rather than a “mobile” device, since people don’t always have it with them. In many cases people expect the full experience, not cut down or reformatted to be a lean version.4

“It took the web community at large at least 10 years of making websites to realize that knowing something concrete about our users is pretty important. Why did we decide that we no longer need to have good data on users now that some browsers fit in our pockets and have touch screens instead of pointer devices?”Matt Henry

There are obviously many things that need to be considered when deciding how to deliver an experience across the current digital landscape.

There Is No Silver Bullet

This is a very difficult problem we’re trying to solve. I know many people favor building from the content out. It’s true, that the content is king. If the content doesn’t matter, then how you build the website doesn’t either. It’s still not that black and white. There are many other factors like: Is the product/content even desirable? Is the company ready and able to deliver this vision of what we are designing? Is the customer willing to try out their new product/service instead of their current provider?


Image credit: Yiibu

Sometimes I feel like we (our industry) are like some sort of government that is out of touch with how the real people live. Having the best data plan and newest device isn’t everyones priority. We tend to prefer building for the latest devices like iPhone because we can really push things and explore the latest techniques. Even though in the mobile space the iPhone has a low penetration.5

Most people outside this industry don’t give a crap how we did it. Just give them the best way to buy their Farmville credits to plant more crops. I believe in the human factor and figuring out the context of how people are accessing the content they are interested in is what will make this an ongoing challenge. I don’t think there will ever be a silver bullet for designing things for people. We’ve been studying how people think much longer than the Web has been around. We know enough to know that we don’t know jack.

“Design is thinking about content and how to put it together. You need to focus on the whole. Layout does not equal design.”Luke Wroblewski

The detractors can say RWD (or anything else) is a trend and will die. The other side of that coin is the proponents say this is the Holy Grail. Everyone hopes for the next savior of our troubles. The only solution that I can see is persistence and evolution, with a goal of great product experiences.

1) Mobile-first Responsive Web Design by Brad Frost

2) Networked Consumer Device Platforms by Luke Wroblewski

3) The Myth of Mobile Context

4) Five Lessons From a Year of Tablet Research

5) Rethinking the Mobile Web