posted by Matt Ward on Sep 20, 2011.
The emergence of responsive design is changing the way that many people think about web design. In this article, we will look at what this might mean for the future and consider the possibility that it is finally time start moving beyond the division of the mobile web and start thinking of a unified and device-independent web.
So here we are, well into the second half of 2011. Some might even say we are in the home stretch, already looking toward what 2012 will have to offer. In this moment, it seems that everywhere you turn somebody is writing about responsive web design. Several days ago, Andy Clarke even went so far as to tweet
From now on, if it’s not responsive, it’s not web design.
Now, I don’t particularly agree with this all-encompassing statement, and in a previous article I discussed some of the potential caveats and pitfalls of responsive design. That being said, however, this responsive movement strikes me as being more than just another tool in the toolbox. Statements like Andy’s plainly suggest an entire paradigm shift within the community (or at least part of the community).
For those who adopt it, responsive design doesn’t just change the way we create websites, it changes the way with think about creating websites. That’s pretty revolutionary.
Instead of creating a “normal” site and a “mobile” site, we are now looking at the possibility of creating a single site that “responds” to its context and offers up different layouts, based on the amount of pixel space that is available. Exactly how we do this is still up for debate in some areas. Yes, media queries are going to be part of the solution, but there are still all kinds of questions surrounding other elements, such as images and advertising.
Still, by all indications, the responsive movement is here to stay, and I cannot help but wonder if its arrival means that we can finally start moving beyond the concept of the mobile web.
It’s A Flawed Term Anyhow
I’ll confess: I’ve never really liked the term “mobile” anyhow. It just seems semantically wrong to me. In my somewhat literal mind, my iPhone is not mobile at all. If I put it down on the desk in front of me, it just sits there, as inanimate as a book or a rock. If it was actually mobile, would it not be able to propel itself into motion, or at least be made to move on its own, without me having to pick it up and carry it with me? I would certainly think so.
And so, by this definition, my iPhone is not a mobile phone at all. It’s a cellular phone, which connects to other devices through a wireless network. The only thing mobile about the entire situation is me and my ability to carry the phone from location to location.
Of course, I recognize that I am arguing—probably very much in vain—in the face of the established vernacular. People have been calling their cell phones “mobile” for years now and I have no expectations that my little rant here will do anything to change that. In fact, one of the largest providers of cellular telephone services in Canada is actually called Bell Mobility.
So, when it comes to how we talk about our phones, there is little chance that we will actually get away from the term itself.
But that doesn’t mean we still need to maintain this fragmented sense that somehow the “mobile” web is a disconnected or separate entity from the “normal” or “desktop” web (which is just as problematic of a term).
Looking at Behaviours
At first glance, there seems to be an initial assumption that, if people are using their handheld devices to access the web, they must be doing so “on the go”. Maybe this means riding the city bus, or taking a cab ride through downtown New York (I hear that’s an adventure). From a certain perspective it does make sense; these devices allow us to bring the web to places it could never have gone before. If we accept this assumption as truth, it is easy to infer that people who are accessing our sites via these devices will be in a rush, simply because of where they are (or where they are passing through). This, in turn, can lead to assumptions about how content should be designed.
Yet, more and more, I am reading about research indicating that a large percentage of “mobile” internet usage is actually happening in the home, rather than out there in the oh-so-busy world. One article states that the percentage may be as high as 43%. This amounts to almost half of the total usage and, based on my own behaviors, makes total sense to me.
I use my iPhone at home all the time. I might be downstairs in our basement watching TV, and come across something that I want to look up. Or, I might suddenly remember I need to send and email or check the some stats of some sort (traffic or MLB standings, for instance). If my Mac is up on my desk and my iPad upon my nightstand (or, more likely, in the hands of my daughter), I’ll just whip out the iPhone and search for the desired information that way.
The interesting thing to note is that these actions are based on exactly the same motives that might have driven me to my laptop or desktop a few years ago. Today, I simply have to convenience of being able to carry the internet with me wherever I go (or at least wherever my 3G network will allow me to connect). Is there a difference in context? Absolutely. But, it’s more about the device than it is about my intentions, and any assumption that I am in a hurry when I am lounging on my couch is likely to be fundamentally inaccurate.
I just want to get the information I’m looking for.
Of course, the logical extension of designing as though users are in a hurry is not necessarily a bad thing, and has been one of the fundamental principles of good usability for years. Even before the explosion of web-ready cellular devices, I seem to remember most UX pundits preaching that the fewer obstacles you put between your user and the content they are looking for, the more usable your site will be and, by extension, the more enjoyable the experience will be for the user.
As far as i can tell, that hasn’t changed.
It just seems that a number of factors have brought it to (back) to prevalence. The first is this assumption that users surfing on a handheld device are in much more of a hurry than users surfing on a desktop or laptop; we assume that they need information faster. In response, we start to cut out all the fluff (widgets) that have filled our sites for so many years, leaving us with optimized “mobile” sites that are leaner and more efficient than their desktop counterparts.
Of course, we’re thinking of the user first here. Right? It has nothing to do with that other factor called screen space. Because, as Luke Wroblewski has rightly pointed out:
There simply isn’t room in a 320 by 480 pixel screen for extraneous, unnecessary elements. You have to prioritize.
Suddenly, we don’t have room for all that extra content. We can’t cram an entire brochure’s worth of material (which probably too much even for a brochure) above the “fold”. Advertising banners or Google Adwords just take up too much valuable visual real-estate and either need to be relegated further down the page or removed entirely. As Luke points out, we suddenly need to prioritize, and if we have any common sense at all, that priority needs to be the content.
In ruthless, butcher-shop fashion, we cut away all the extra fat and produce simple sites where content is allowed to shine. In fact, we produce the type of sites that we should have been creating all along, regardless of the device they are being viewed on.
And, at least as I understand it, that is the reason (or at least one of the reasons) that Luke Wroblewski preaches his concept of mobile first with such fervor. It takes us back to the basics and helps eliminate much of what the calls the ”interface debris that litter today’s desktop accessed Web sites.”
Interestingly, however, if we dig to the core of this argument, we find that its not about division, but cohesion. The beauty of the so-called “mobile” design is that its fundamental constraints naturally lead to a better user experience on handheld devices (or at least handheld devices that offer a modern browsing experience). But the idea shouldn’t stop there. Instead, it should flow over into the entire site, placing the focus on content and usability in all contexts, not just for the smaller screens of our handheld devices.
The New Boston Globe
As a case in point, let’s look at the Boston Globe as an example. If you haven’t heard about its recent redesign, you clearly don’t spend much time on Twitter. Regardless, since it’s launch, news of this redesign has been plastered all over the design circles, mostly with a reasonably positive reception.
Setting the subscription-for-content model aside, the site overcomes a number of the issues that face many news-based sites these days (see this installment of The Brads for plentiful examples). It has a clean, elegant design that places the emphasis directly on the content. Lovely typography makes reading a real joy.
More significantly for our purposes, however, is the fact that these statements remain true on my iPhone, my iPad, my MacBook, and even on IE8 on my Vista-powered home PC. The site doesn’t try to distinguish between “mobile” and “desktop” users. Nor does it appear to make any glaring assumptions about behaviour in these areas. It is simply designed to respond to the space allocated for display, and to do so in such a way as to provide optimum readability and usability.
In my mind, this is the way of the future. It’s not about a “mobile“ web that stands in direct contrast to a “desktop“ web. Instead, its about a single, flexible and meticulously crafted web that provides rich user experiences across a wide range of different devices.Post A Comment
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