Responsive Web design -- it sounds like something no IT professional would be without, right?
Sort of. In reality, responsive Web design, the technique of building Web interfaces to fit a range of differently sized device screens, has become both a necessity and a challenge for many IT shops. If you're dealing in Web content, you'll need to understand the fine points.
The "trick," some experts say, is to understand exactly what you're trying to do. "Web design has always been about figuring out what's next and what technology's going to change and adapting to new devices and things like that," Jeff White, a principal at the marketing firm Kula Partners, said during last month's Atlantic Internet Marketing conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia. "Now we're trying to figure out how to make content work on as many different devices as possible using the least amount of budget as possible."
Jeff White, principal at Kula Partners.
One solution, he said, is responsive Web design, in which HTML and CSS (cascading style sheets) technology are used to adapt the same content to fit screens on mobile phones, laptops, and even wide-screen TVs.
The problem, White said, is whether the content really lends itself to being spread across so many devices. "We really have to consider how people are using things, where they are when they're using them, what they're trying to accomplish, how it's different when you're using your phone or you're at your desk or in your living room." The issue is one of "context."
White isn't alone in giving this advice. The idea of developing once to fit a range of devices sounds efficient, but it many not be. According to Stacey Mulcahy of the digital design firm Big Spaceship, interactive elements and advertisements don't necessarily translate well from one device to another. "Responsive design takes care of the layout, but not the experience," she said during a conference in Toronto in April.
Mulcahy suggested giving mobile devices priority in the design process and considering the need for interactivity, instead of the perfect reproduction of a specific page.
Both White and Mulcahy gave good and bad examples of multi-device implementation of content in their talks. For White, the New York Times "doesn't take into account what device you have," so its main page is simply reproduced on a smartphone screen without being "contextually aware." In contrast, Mulcahy cited the Boston Globe as a publication "primarily focused on content," not just miniaturizing a given page.
Another issue with responsive Web design is that it is more than just a way to develop apps for different devices. It's also an approach that is distinct from traditional "waterfall" programming.
Like agile project management, responsive Web design is a departure from more traditional techniques that rely on sequential steps to complete a project. There have been plenty of comparisons of agile and responsive Web design. (BTW, check out what Allied Beverage Group CIO Brian Margolies has to say about agile methods in his Internet Evolution blog this week.)
There also are issues surrounding the standardization of responsive Web design. Presently, there is some contention between developers in different camps. Browser vendors, for instance, have a distinct view as opposed to application developers.
In the end, the news here is that Web design continues to evolve to support the realities of the Internet. Though IT must be aware of the trends and the choices involved, every shop will have to come to terms with what works best.
— Mary Jander , Managing Editor, Internet Evolution