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Unlocking the true power of responsive design

Unlocking the true power of responsive design Greg Kihlström

There's a lot of talk about what seems like the latest fad in interactive design: responsive design. But don't be fooled into thinking this is merely a fad that will pass. It is consistent with a trend in the industry to produce high quality experiences while maintaining consistency of content and interaction.

I can see why you think we've been here before. First of all, I think there's been confusion between the style of web 2.0 (big glossy buttons, anyone?) and its promise of interconnectedness (MySpace, YouTube, Facebook, etc.). Graphic style is not the real focus of this new era many are calling web 3.0. We can certainly point out how eBay's redesign bears a striking resemblance to Pinterest or Fab -- even MySpace is getting in on the party. Another current trend is sites that are one long scroll like Grey Goose or Nike Air Jordan. While there seems to be one or two dominant interfaces that define this era we're in called web 3.0, the responsive mindset is less about style than content and structure. Web 3.0's promise of a web that understands our inputs and provides relevant personalized experiences and connections is a lot broader than simply incorporating responsive design, which is also beyond the scope of this article.

Responsive design is a tactic, not a strategy. The strategy behind responsive design is to reduce costs by implementing a single solution that works across all devices, give users a more consistent experience for the same reason, and give future proof (at least to some extent) of creating interactive experiences that are adaptable to screen sizes and form factors that are yet to come. A different strategy, which bore mobile-only websites that were distinct in design and content from their desktop counterparts, is to provide people only with the information they need while using the form factor they currently have in front of them.

There are challenges with both. Responsive design assumes that form factor is the challenge and not that the user is seeking different content because of the context (in this case, holding a phone versus sitting with a laptop). Distinct mobile and desktop versions of a site assume that a user only wants a certain experience while accessing a site with a certain device.

What we know now is that consumers think less about which device is sitting in front of them and more about assuming that the content they require is accessible to them, no matter the interface they connect with. Combine that with the proliferation of device sizes and form factors such as the internet fridge, and you'll realize that there aren't enough hours in the day to create a distinct site for each type of interface that users are connecting with.

So it comes down to something very simple. Actually, it's the very purpose of what the web was intended for from the very beginning: content -- publishers providing readers with good, relevant content wherever they are in the world. We've certainly progressed from simple hyperlinks to context-sensitive recommendations, social networked communities, and full-screen video streaming, but in the end it always comes down to providing the best quality content to the end user.

In 1990, Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau originally wrote the "Proposal for a hyper-texts project." They didn't have the devices, the broadband speed, or the numbers-crunching ability to provide socially aware recommendations, but their proposal remains relevant: access to content for everyone. This takes on a new interpretation in a 2013, chock full of devices, business models, and social networks, but the intent is the same.

When we separate style from substance, we then can start to see the true power of responsive design.

Greg Kihlström is vp of digital strategy at Carousel30.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Laptop, tablet and mobile" image via Shutterstock.

Greg is a digital strategist and creative director who has worked with top brands on a number of campaigns, including AOL, AARP, Ben & Jerry's, Geico Direct, MTV, Starbucks, The Nature Conservancy, Toyota, TV One and Washington Wizards.

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Chris Chasty

2013, March 20

Good job of referring to responsive design as a tactic more than anything else, I completely agree. The focus should be on creating a channel for your content that consistently provides a great user experience. If the content is difficult to consume, then the content is useless no matter how well written and thought provoking.