Where are the poster children for responsive design? | June 10, 2011

In my previous post I stated that while I didn’t think responsive design was the right approach for every mobile experience, it was appropriate for 90% of cases and should become the natural default option. Sadly the current default for most organisations is to build a suite of device specific mobile apps. While giving designers control over layout and companies the ability to make a bit of extra money through app store sales, this seems like an expensive, labour insensitive and somewhat wasteful approach. Especially when you consider the relatively small number of app consumers, compared to the number of people who access the web through mobile devices. For most online companies a mobile optimised website is going to be the smartest option in terms of reach and ROI.

I think one of the big problems with responsive design is that it’s a relatively new and unproven concept. Sure, a few companies and individuals have been building responsive versions of their personal projects like the sites for Ampersand and UX London. However few large companies have yet to cotton on, either because they’re enamoured by the idea of making it big in the app store, or simply aren’t aware of the approach.

We were talking about this in the studio the other day and likened the problem to the early days of CSS. Sure there were blogs by people like Jeremy and Myself, but there weren’t any big corporate sites using this technology. Until there was a canonical standards based site out there for us all to point too, it was going to be very difficult to convince clients of this new approach. Then along came the beautiful 85th PGA Championship Golf website.

 PGA Championship Golf website

Now we had a great looking commercial site we could use to prove to clients that web standards weren’t simply a techie fab, but were actually a viable way of building corporate websites. What we needed was the responsive equivalent. A large, internationally renowned company willing to forgo the conventional wisdom that every mobile experience starts with the app store and invest in what we see as the future of mobile interactivity. What’s more, we wanted to be the people to create it.

A few days ago we were delighted to see an early step in that direction.

The Financial Times decided to skip the app store mentality and launch a HTML5 version of their service, optimised for iPad and iPhone viewing. This is obviously still a little siloed and doesn’t quite live up to the dream of “the one web”, but it’s getting there. You could see how, with a few tweaks and a bit of responsive thinking, this application could be made to work across any and all devices with a modern browser. As such I think the folks at Assanka should be applauded for this work and hope that it is the start of a much bigger trend in responsive design.

Posted at June 10, 2011 7:35 AM


Jeremy Keith said on June 10, 2011 10:45 AM

The poster child for responsive design will be the Boston Globe, set to relaunch this month.

The FT “app” is a more like a wanted poster than a poster child.

Andy budd said on June 10, 2011 2:36 PM

I hope you mean “a help wanted” poster rather than a “wanted for crimes against the web” poster. It’s not perfect but it’s an interesing concept and a step in the right direction.

James said on June 10, 2011 2:46 PM

‘Apps’ have (and still are) the big fat buzzword at the moment… until we get past this way of thinking, responsive design is going to be held back. Of course by ‘we’ I mean marketers and consumers more than designers.

Designing multiple versions of content specifically for different platforms resonates uncomfortably with how we use to build for Internet Explorer AND Netscape…

Steven Grant said on June 10, 2011 2:51 PM

Jeremy’s talk on Wed came along at just the right time. I got a call from a client wanting to develop an iPhone app for their online store. I have managed to convince them that making their new site responsive is a better way to go with no additional customer barrier the way they would have with an app. Great for me as well because I don’t do apps - that said, I’ve never tackled a responsive site.

Simon Cox said on June 10, 2011 3:06 PM

Smaller corporates will have to take up the challenge as the big lumbering behemoths, like that which I work for, will need to wait untill there is a tipping point in considered best practice. Right now we know that Responsive Design is the right way to go but there are still some edges to smooth off before it’s fully adopted. And that goes fir all of us who build sites - we need to fully understand this newish approach before committing clients to it.

Brad Frost said on June 10, 2011 3:09 PM

After seeing some of Ethan and the Filament Group’s work on the upcoming Boston Globe, I can say it indeed will be the poster child for responsive web design, and HOPEFULLY be the poster child for mobile-first responsive design.

I think responsive design is a huge step in the right direction for creating beautiful and usable experiences for multiple contexts. However there’s a huge problem, and that’s the fact that as RWD is getting more popular, more people are simply tacking on some media queries onto their sites and declaring it “mobile-friendly”. Yes, it’s better than doing nothing, but the mentality of shoehorning 10 pounds of content into a 2 pound container needs to change.

Ultimately, it comes down planning projects with good progressive enhancement techniques in mind, and with the explosion of mobile that means designing for mobile experiences first. It’s kind of ironic that Luke W’s book on Mobile First is following up Ethan’s book, and I think that those two philosophies together are what’s going to carry us into the future. To the future!

Stuart Robon said on June 10, 2011 3:20 PM

I agree with James that it is ‘this way of thinking’ that is holding us back with (big assumption coming up) people thinking that if they create an ‘app’ for their company it’d be another revenue stream.
As we can see that ‘the big boys’ like the BBC and Apple themselves having an ‘app’ and with Apple serving a fixed grid site to smaller screen (see iOS) I think the ®evolution of web design using (the catchphrase of the minute) ‘responsive web design’ would be more akin to Daniel Mainwaring’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” rather than Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich’s “Independance Day”

Scott said on June 10, 2011 4:45 PM

One hurdle for companies is advertising. Advertising on some commercial sites is a mixed bag of tricks with pushdown and expandable ads, many of which are flash based. I’ve been experimenting some and although things can be hidden based on media queries it seems like a poor solution just using CSS when these ads are still requested and only slow down the experience for mobile devices.

The result would be complaints from advertisers when they see their ad disappear/shrink as they adjust their browser window and/or users complaining of slow load times. I work on a large sports related site where ads are a factor (leaderboard etc.) and there are solutions for these problems but right now they seem too much of a pain in the ass to overcome compared to just having a mobile version of the site and a desktop version.

James Pearce said on June 10, 2011 7:02 PM

To disparage the FT’s effort simply because it’s labelled ‘app’ rather than ‘site’ would be to do it an injustice.

I’m not even sure anyone agrees on what the difference is anyway - but if it weans users away from experiences written with native code to ones written on a web stack, then I also applaud it.

It uses media queries, a sensible rich-client approach (all articles are serialized as JSON and cached offline) and is undeniably ‘content-first’. Inner-state is bookmarkable.

What’s the silo? The purist in me would note that it’s a shame they don’t resolve the article IDs with their desktop equivalents and make more use of the History API to stitch that together. But this is somewhat ameliorated by the dedicated ‘share’ feature, which will appease a general public who are gradually being weened off URLs anyway.

Andy Budd said on June 11, 2011 6:22 PM

James, apologies if I didn’t get my point across properly. I was actually praising the FT app as a step in the right direction. Not quite there yet, but close enough to be interesting. My argument was actually against natives apps as the default stance and encouraging more companies to look to the web as a universal delivery system, site, app or otherwise.

Ken Douglass said on June 12, 2011 3:24 AM

In my experience, responsiveness is the priority. Combined with a more “device-specific” Web app (tailored to fit the content delivery API) - dependent, of course, on the site, it’s content, it’s purpose, it’s business goals, etc. - you can’t go wrong. Go to market with a responsive/device-tailored site, then add native apps as business and marketing goals demand. In short, get the consumer to the content, then consider the ROI (or lack of) of investing in native apps. Thanks for the article!

James Pearce said on June 13, 2011 11:51 PM

Yup, @Andy, I was agreeing with you :-)

Publishers are really scrambling to figure out HTML5 mobile ‘apps’ right now. Whether or not they oughtn’t be doing ‘sites’ instead, we live in very exciting times.