Responsive design and the art of being busy

You have worked in digital since 2010, you’ve come across responsive design and clients are asking about it and they are curious:

There is evidence that users are accessing our site on tablets and phones. Make our site responsive!

Now, imagine this from a big client – as big as they come. Their website has grown exponentially for a decade, and it is now heaving under the strain of what I call information bolt-on syndrome.

The site’s performance is poor and finding information is not unlike first time tourists venturing into Central London without an A to Z. Stakeholders have come and gone, digital strategies have changed course mid-way, and then re-aligned again, before finally being discarded altogether. As you probe, more worrying evidence comes to light: the development team is off-shore and don’t respond quickly, past decision makers have disappeared, information architecture and style inconsistencies abound, no UX has ever been done, there is no grid…

An expert review of the site soon resembles an archaeological dig where you unearth layer upon layer of design trends from epochs past, and it becomes clear that an overarching plan has gone by the wayside a long time ago.

Now fast forward to 2013. We are in the responsive epoch and the unfortunate site needs to accommodate this new trend as well. You are busy crafting your case, but then news arrives: the stakeholder you’ve been working with has just been replaced due to internal restructuring in the client organisation. She is re-applying for her position and if successful she may or may not be back on the project. But for the time being there is a new project owner and he as a different view, in fact things can’t be clearer:

Make the current site responsive, but don’t touch the content – then at least users will be able to start using the site on their mobiles.

You protest and argue that there is too much information to force upon a small screen, so you look for evidence to support your view and find it in Mobile Usabilitywhere Nielsen and Budiu write:

Simply using responsive web design to make the full site accessible on mobile devices often results in a substandard mobile UX.

I’m not arguing against making sites responsive. It is the right thing to do. But there are situations where a holistic approach is called for when making large legacy websites responsive.

In my view responsive design is ultimately a content strategy issue – but that only represents the tip of an iceberg. Brad Frost captures the complexity of responsive design’s latent issues in the image below from Beyond Squishy: The principles of adaptive design.

Brad Frost responsive design iceberg

It is about understanding what users are doing on mobile devices and presenting them with appropriate UIs where unnecessary features and content gets stripped out completely. Again you turn to Nielsen and Budiu to back you up:

But the most important point is that responsive design – if done correctly – does involve distinct UIs for each platform. After all, the entire idea is that the design adapts (or ‘responds’) to the capabilities of the user’s specific platform.

I would go further and argue that UIs need to respond to the user’s context of use more so than to a specific platform. Taking this view removes the viewport completely from your thinking and your focus is firmly on what users are attempting to accomplish within a given context. When you consider that mobile users will probably be disrupted when using their devices you take a different view on what may be useful to them. Once this is understood you can put your UI hat back on.

You are now more confident and suggest a step back from the code for the time being to investigate if there is room to revisit the IA, do a content edit, investigate performance issues, research what the analytics say, and address other inconsistencies that have accumulated over time before moving on to the code – in short, atone for past design sins. You may even suggest that it may be a good idea to find out what real users say. Failing to do this will result in merely giving the existing behemoth a false sense of security, and the end result will be a site that is unintentionally unresponsive.

This is naive I hear you say. The boss is already applying downward pressure on work estimates and won’t pay for what he deems unnecessary. You sat in a meeting where the boss made it clear that he does not care what users think. Stick to your guns nevertheless, because bringing the big picture into view is the right approach. And it makes business sense for an organisation to get their mobile strategy right, now rather than later. Being busy is nice, but even better when you are busy doing the right things.

Methods come and go, but principles tend to remain longer. So focus on design principles when other resources are under pressure. And question what people mean by responsive. Again Nielsen and Budiu sum op nicely:

… mobile versus desktop design differences go far beyond layout issues. With enough coding, these differences can be supported through responsive design. In fact, you could argue that a design isn’t responsive enough if it doesn’t accommodate all the salient platform differences.