My Relationship Status with Responsive Design: It’s Complicated

Jeremy Pratte
October 07, 2013
User Experience Design

The past and the future are in a brutal tug of war in the web design and development field. Two needs are currently duking it out with many websites: the need to be mobile and tablet-friendly versus the need to still support older browsers (sometimes even Internet Explorer 7).

Problem: Defining Responsive Design

The term “responsive design” has supplanted "Web 2.0" as a buzz term in the web development field and, like with Web 2.0, more and more clients are asking for it before they fully understand what it is, what it means to have it, and if they even need it. Further complicating things is that honestly, not even all web developers and designers can agree on what it is. Is it making a site look good on smart phones and tablets without making entirely separate mobile versions of the site? Or is it making the site shrink in a totally awesome way as you shrink your browser window? And, like the lens flares of the past, does the latter actually serve a useful purpose, other than saying "look at the cool thing we did!"? For if you're on a desktop or laptop computer, if you shrink your browser window and the site doesn't look good, then, well, why not just then make the window big again? Will it get to the point where the value of a web company rests on whether or not they can make a homepage carousel shrink down smoothly to the size of a postage stamp and the videos of kittens contained therein remain totally cute?

Clients are now asking for "responsive design." Our own Aaron Branson wrote last Fall about how clients are asking for it before they know what it is or even if they need it. It could require additional work and budget and they may not even benefit from it if, say, their website is mostly meant to be viewed on a desktop/laptop in terms of their expected audience. Complicating the issue further is that in addition to wanting responsive design, some clients also still require IE8 and even IE7 support. That would be fine if they were cool with there being progressive enhancement (which means making the site look good on older browsers but making them look better and with added features in modern browsers that support them). But most are not. This adds layers of complication on top of all the other typical problems, like designing and programming a site with dynamic content.

Solution: Minimal use of old browsers

If I were in charge of the world, besides declaring a worldwide Free Pizza Day, I'd end IE7 and IE8 support from sites that want to be responsive, excepting maybe minimal support for IE8. These browsers are just holding us back. We need to move forward. Not only are these browsers keeping us from moving forward, they're keeping us from even figuring out how to do so. The focus needs to be on device compatibility, not browser compatibility. I'd predicted years ago that someday we'd only be worried about devices and not browser compatibility, but now we're in this transitional period where both are competing and we’re actually thinking fondly of the days of Netscape, Y2K stickers, and the blink tag. OK, maybe not the blink tag.

The Future: Redefining Responsive Design

When we do move forward, we do need to figure out what exactly "responsive design" means, and how it figures into the future of the web. Unlike Web 2.0 this term is going to stay with us, but it'll just be redefined a few times. Basically it means a design that will respond to the platform it is being viewed on. I think most colleagues agree on that. But again, does it mean making a site melt like butter as you shrink your window, or does it mean it is mobile-friendly? Or both? Could figuring this out actually force us to rethink what it means to design a site in the first place? Could my idea that I'd blogged about before about not having a layout come into play here? Moreover, when you're mocking up separate designs for clients for different desktop, tablet, and phone break points, you might start thinking "Is there a better way to do this?" I know it has evolved a lot over time, but could the basic concept of designing a website that we've had for over twenty years be overturned? Perhaps we can all answer these questions together in the coming years. And then we can work on that Free Pizza Day thing.

Bonus questions

I have concluded that responsive design should be about the site responding to the device and what happens to the site as a browser window shrinks is just a side effect of the main point, which is device compatibility. But what do you think? Isn't getting the shrinkage bug-free a lot of effort for a dubious use-case? Should responsive design be just about how the site responds to tablets and phones with possibly a concern for a few significant browser resolutions in between? Or is it more or equally about a beautiful, smooth transition during browser play?

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