I find myself tweeting occasional opinions about responsive web design without painting a bigger picture of my actual view on the current state of responsive design. Usually crossed-wires ensue, people get offended, some get heated, and others start trolling me hard.
So I thought I’d take this opportunity to pull together some thoughts I have about where we are on the topic. I’m deliberately not going to link to few other resources, or name any names, because frankly there is so much content and opinions to read about responsive design that pointing out specific view points this early on is useless.
I’m also going to sound quite uninformed and ill-read on the topic. That’s because I am quite uninformed and ill-read: I try to avoid most articles and opinions just to try and form my own ideas. That said, as someone who has taken the time to read this (and therefore who cares about it), I would love to hear your own opinions on the matter and hopefully I can integrate them into this post and help it evolve into something more solid and useful.
An Ill-defined Bandwagon
I attend quite a lot of web design conferences (or at least I used to: most are now repetitive and offer little more than an elaborate Smashing Magazine blog post). Almost without exception, speakers deliver the same message: everything you do must be responsive. They demonstrate this by showing off their latest work, which looks pretty and technically well executed.
But often the examples are not real-world, large-scale, commercial projects: they are personal blogs, or for products/services that require just a few pages of content. While that’s great, and does point to a future where every site responds well to the device it is being viewed on, they aren’t sites that comprise tens of different template styles, or feature myriad types content.
Rarely this message is delivered with any caveats. The amount of effort to both design and develop responsive sites takes a great deal more time and money since you’re effectively designing one, two, or three more websites, depending on which breakpoints you decide is appropriate. (And what a luxury it would be to have the time, resources, and money to create large-scale responsive sites: most of us work on projects that don’t.)
The same speakers often talk about how denying that the future of interactive design is akin to denying global warming (someone said this once, I can’t remember whom), while others say that if you don’t design (and develop) with responsiveness in mind, “you can’t call yourself a web designer” (I know who this is, but won’t name names).
Responsive Design is Hard
Because it is hard, many responsive sites are very poor. They are led by a need to have their practices accepted by web celebrities and popular thinking rather than delivering a quality product. The bandwagon that everyone is jumping on is very ill-defined, and the results are less than satisfactory. Even as I type this, the bandwagon is in flux, given the onset of responsive images thanks to retina displays that if rumour have us believe, will be more commonplace than just iPads later this Summer.
Anecdotally, none of my non-web-industry-friends actually like when sites resize and fit to their phone. It goes against the mental model they have of their favourite websites. They find it frustrating since suddenly, sections are missing and the navigation is pared down or removed entirely. Further, I have never met a client who is in the least bit impressed when you sit in front of them, resizing the browser again and again (I’m certain that it’s only us lot who actually does that).
Of course I’m not denying that responsiveness shouldn’t be considered when you start a new project. This site is responsive, for instance, because it suits the content: simple written text. But for a vast majority of the sites I work on, making them responsive would cost a huge amount of cash and take a lot longer to implement. I don’t want to force a client into investing in thinking or a practice that is still quite immature.
But if responsive design is a fundamental requirement, I would suggest taking some of Jakob Nielsen’s advice (I feel I’m the only person who agrees with this, however). Until we know how to make site usefully responsive, give the user an option to experience the full website.
I’d like to see designers and agencies should stop just talking about the tools and techniques of responsive design, and focus on how responsive design is woven organically into the fabric of real-life, practical, and well-executed projects. The designers and developers who consistently create great responsive sites don’t shout about it just to be heard or to attract new clients; it just forms part of their daily output. These are the leaders who are ultimately going to determine what constitutes good responsive design, and who will define the bandwagon.