I was really excited to attend the Responsive Day Out mini-conference in Brighton last Friday; many great talks, and lots of food for thought.
Here at Flow, we've worked on a number of Responsive Web Design (RWD) projects. In fact, most of the website projects to come through our doors in the last few months have had the adjective 'responsive' attached to the brief.
So it was great to hear how others have been applying this emerging mode of design, and to compare notes on our experiences so far.
The conference programme
I was a little bit sceptical that it's possible to put up a full-day RWD conference without overlap between the talks. But it was in fact a brilliant and insightful day. Every one of the speakers presented a very different perspective on the subject, and I'm sure we could have continued with another day packed with interesting talks.
Sarah Parmenter kicked off the day by reflecting on how her design workflow has had to change when working on RWD projects. Producing a number of pixel-perfect screen mock-ups is simply not an option anymore. (But then, has it ever been a sensible option?)
Instead, it's important to nail the content structure and content/functionality hierarchies on the key screens first. Then, produce a pattern library and a styles guide to document the building blocks. Steering away from thinking about precise layouts too much is desirable, because complete control over the presentation is elusive nowadays.
An information architecture tool that does exactly that has actually been around for several years now. I expect Dan Brown's Page Description Diagrams to be re-discovered by the UX design community soon.
The day continued at a pleasant pace, with blocks of three talks followed by a brief discussion. We heard about UI design patterns for navigation, applying a progressive enhancement ethos, and how to work with web fonts and icon/asset fonts. The theme of site performance came up a few times (good performance is good design), as well as how to deal with images and multimedia assets responsively.
I personally really enjoyed Anna Debenham's talk. She reminded us all that RWD is not just about smaller smartphone viewports but also about game consoles, which could sometimes sit on the other side of the screen size spectrum. Game consoles also present a range of very juicy interaction design challenges thanks to differences in input methods (gamepads, touchscreens, voice, gestures, pointers, remotes).
Mark Boulton closed the day with his keynote suggesting that designers have sometimes become too comfortable with their tools, methods, and workflows, applying their favourite tried-and-tested solutions to a brief after brief. For example, for a few years in the recent past, fixed-layout sites were just too easy to settle for. On the modern web there are edges to our canvases, it’s just that they are no longer known. It's time to reflect on what is to come next. “We need to start feeling comfortable about feeling uncomfortable.”
Some speakers have published their talks as blog posts already. Here is Elliot Jay Stock’s talk Responsive Web Design - The War Has Not Yet Been Won. Orde Saunders even published his notes for all the talks from the conference.
It's not surprising that our clients have begun asking for a responsive design approach. Some recently published data suggests that implementing a digital property responsively could result in increased key performance metrics. Whether such increases can be attributed to responsive design alone is of course debatable.
I would like to see some stats for projects that e.g. replaced a separate mobile site (that was well optimised for smaller viewports and mobile contexts) with a responsively designed site. In some instances, users might not even be able to tell the difference. Especially, if it's just the implementation that has changed - not the actual design. Although, we could still expect that the business might save considerably by not having to update and maintain two separate sites.
What next? Start with the content and users
Starting with the actual content and its structure has always been a sound strategy. Focusing on understanding the people, their goals and contexts (which might in turn influence the goals) is another essential ingredient of a successful RWD approach. And finally, top it up with good old inclusive design philosophy - there is always a wide range of people and needs to cater for. Whether it’s the different capabilities of their devices, their connectivity, or the environments in which they’re using our products.
In short, responsive design presents many opportunities and is becoming the default design and development mode nowadays. If anything, I believe that contextual research and user-centred interaction design will only become more important moving forward.
Written by former Foolproofer Jan Srutek