Responsive Design Requires Strategic Collaboration

I’ve been recommending to many of my customers a responsive design approach for a while now. I’ve always felt that it provides a consistent branded experience across multiple devices with less ongoing maintenance. The trade off is that it does take more effort to define, design and develop a responsive website.

There are lots of articles about responsive design but this one I read on the Real World UX website is the first one that takes a broad overview of the cross-functional perspectives that should be considered. In  “Deciding whether to go responsive requires strategic collaboration” the author details considerations from the business strategy, user experience and development area perspective. For each area there is a list with a need and a short explanation of that need.

The article stresses the need for cross-functional collaboration to broaden the understanding of the needs in each area involved in a responsive website design project. Without this understanding conversations between the areas may “devolve into arguments rather than constructive dialogue”.

The one thing I find missing from this article is a solution to facilitating these sometimes difficult cross-functional conversations. I believe you need to have an experienced Business Analyst involved in the project. Their role are to elicit requirements from all stakeholders in the project – that includes design and development needs. It is their job to be able to communicate those requirements clearly to all parties involved and make sure they understand each others perspectives. I also believe that a strong, independent Project Manager will keep those cross-functional teams on track and informed during the project.

I like the lists of cross-functional considerations in this article. My recommendation for a successful project would be to include a Business Analyst and Project Manager (or someone who can perform both roles) as a part of your responsive website project team.

Design Hasn’t Changed

Even with the digital revolution, visual design and its underlying principals haven’t really changed for the last 50 years. I was surprised when I read that in Why Design Hasn’t Changed a Bit in the Past 50 Years by James George on the Design Festival website. I thought for sure that with the advent of electronic communications and social media that couldn’t be true.

The article explained negative space and how book margins are determined for both print and electronic versions. I learned that the application of the rule of thirds for composition was first recorded in the late 1790’s. Even older than that is the Golden Ratio which determines the most aesthetically pleasing ratio between areas in a composition. Examples of this can be found in the structure of a seashell as well as the Mona Lisa.

My favorite part of the article will make my UX and IA friends happy. For many years I have heard them quote Hick’s Law and Fitt’s law while reviewing visual designs for me. Hick’s law basically states that the time it takes to make a selection from a menu of items is determined by how the information is organized. The more information presented the more time it will take for your visitor to find what they’re looking for. Fitt’s law looks at the size of your menu items and states that visitors will instinctively navigate to the largest menu on the page.This can be good or bad depending on your goals. The author illustrates these laws quite well using the craigslist and eBay websites.

While the underlying principals haven’t changed but visual designers still need to apply the principals correctly in all the different digital communication vehicles we use today. The biggest challenge will continue to be that you cannot always control the size of the view-port or client side software where your target audience sees your message. We must think beyond a fixed page.

Responsive Design is Everywhere

I recently read an article called The New Rules of the Responsive Web by Matthew Carver on the Webdesigner Depot website. The article started by telling me what I already know – Responsive Design is now a near ubiquitous buzzword on the web. To me that means a lot of people think it’s great (including me) and a lot of people don’t know what it is – but know they need to have it.

The Responsive Design approach is been around for a long time. But it has now gathered enough momentum to be a part of most every web design project. This article lays out four ground rules for how to work on the design of a responsive web design project. The first rule is don’t stop at just a graceful rescaling of the design. Build a site optimized for anything from the desktop to a “tiny cellphone running IE7 on an EDGE network”. Second, there is no easy way out. Responsive design is complicated it calls for a new iterative approach to design and development. Evan Gerber VP of Mobile at Fidelity in a presentation I attended described it as a “Lean UX” approach. By prototyping your wireframes and presenting them to the client you can focus on the site’s layout before the design. Third is to embrace change. You have to change your tools and approach to design fro a responsive design project. You need to go beyond Photoshop and full page mock-ups. The last rule is my favorite – “Remember your roots”. It starts with a quote from Tim Berners-Lee. “[The web] should be accessible from any kind of hardware that can connect to the Internet: stationary or mobile, small screen or large.” This has always been the case. We need to think of how the target audience is consuming our information and make sure is easy for them to do so.

Read the full article for the full details of the rules. There are links to some nice resources and as always the comments on the article provide for some interesting perspectives.

No Lists for Navigation?

Using lists for navigation makes it difficult for blind visitors to navigate your site. This came as news to me. I had always thought that lists and nested lists were the most accessible way to code website navigation. The article Navigation in Lists: To Be or Not To Be by Chris Coyier on the CSS-Tricks website has convinced me otherwise.

The author reports that at a January 2011 Refresh event Reinhard Stebner, who is blind, suggested not using lists for navigation but instead use divs and spans. He uses JAWS as a screen reader and said navigation in lists makes it harder for him. Other attendees add that the list structure is not conductive to the screen reader’s logic and that divs and spans are the way to go as they’re invisible to screen readers.

Read the full article to find out what other attendees at the event had to say. Be sure to read the comments at the bottom. There is a great discussion amongst developers about the topic.

Native app or Web app for mobile? It depends of course.

Recently I read two articles talking about the choice between native apps and web apps for your mobile solution. Both articles came at it from different angles. What came across for me in both was know your audience and how they will be using your mobile solution. What’s not discussed is the marketing reasons for having an app. If it’s cool for your brand and you think you can generate more traffic and buzz with an app – invest in one.

This readwrite mobile article Native Apps Versus Mobile Web: A Primer For Publishers provides a great overview of the choices you need to make when deciding on which direction to take. Native apps can be expensive and difficult to maintain but can offer more interactivity and better performance. Mobile Web apps may make it easier to deploy the same content across multiple devices but you may be limited in deploying rich media. This article includes a hybrid approach as well. I really agreed with this advice from André T.M. Alfuero, SVP of technology for Digitas. “The future is always uncertain, so it is key for publishers to stay flexible, Keeping content portable should be a major focus area”. He went on to say that publishers should focus on their content strategies as a whole.

A little while back Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg called Facebook’s HTML5 web app one of the biggest mistakes they made. Does that mean we should all give up on web apps and HTML5? As this article HTML5 is dead. Long live HTML5 on CNET explains there are many things to consider when deciding to go native or to create a mobile web app. Native apps can take advantage of closer integration with the phone but web apps can be updated in one place and cover many platforms. Make sure you know your audience and what features they need when mobile. As always make sure you have the resources to keep your apps up to date both technically and editorially. Read the full article and Zuckerberg’s full comments.