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.

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Does (screen) size really matter? | June 7, 2011

There’s an interesting debate happening in the world of mobile design at the moment. In one camp we have the “nativists” who believe that the best mobile experiences are tailored to a particular device. These are the people focused on creating platform specific mobile apps and mobile websites. Then we have the “universalists” who believe in the “one web”, a place where all content and services can be delivered to multiple devices through the same URL.

This division is causing me a bit of a quandary. The designer in me appreciates the slightly more constrained experience that platform specific design provides, but realises that we risk opening a pandoras box of ever more variations. I also see some benefits of the app store mentality (such as ratings and reviews) but worry that it provides too much control to a small number of parties and is inherently unscalable.

In contrast the standardista in me loves the simplicity of a single web, but finds it hard to reconcile with my own usage patterns. There are just certain things I don’t enjoy doing on a small screen like booking a flight or filling in my taxes. Basically anything which requires lots of data being presented at the same time, complex navigational structures and multi-step processes. There are obviously ways of breaking this information down to satisfy fat fingers and a small screen size, but that makes it difficult to reconcile with a single URL pointing to a single resource or piece of data.

It’s easy for people to dismiss small screen sizes as just a matter of dimensions. You just need to reflow the content and fit it into a smaller space. However I find the screen real estate has a direct relation to my enjoyment of an experience. For instance, I feel completely absorbed by some movies when watching them on a big screen, but feel distracted when viewing the same movie on a small screen. So there are certain films which I prefer to watch at the cinema but would hate to watch on a flight. Similarly there are certain programs which I enjoy on the small screen, but would never want to see projected.

Research suggests that this happens in the physical world as well. In one experiment, researchers set people a variety of tasks and the only variance was the hight of the room. It turns out that rooms with high ceilings encouraged more expansive and creative thinking, while low ceiling heights promoted focus and concentration. It would seem that size does matter.

The same thing happens to me when I use devices with different form factors. The extra real estate of my desktop means that I’m more comfortable doing creative, expansive and exploratory activities. On my phone, I’m much more comfortable doing targeted, focussed and linear tasks. Research in this field is obviously needed, but if different devices and form factors do encourage different behaviour, it seems reasonable to treat the services you design and the content we present differently.

That’s not to say that every service or piece of content needs to be designed for every individual device. I believe that the bulk of sites can and should be built using responsive design as a default. However I also understand that there is no “one size fits all” approach to mobile design and that some services need to be tailored to specific devices and form factors, be that mobile sites or native apps. After all, complex problems often have complex and messy solutions. That’s were good design comes in.

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