Beyond Responsive

Jason Grigsby just wrote an excellent post talking about how he’s wrestled with trying to define “responsiveness”.

When a client comes to us to help them make their existing site or app responsive, we know that we’re going to be using fluid grids, flexible images and media queries.

But we also know we’re going to be using much more than just those three techniques. The best responsive web designs are doing much more. And when we teach workshops or help clients, much of what we’re discussing are the things that you do after you’ve got the three techniques down.

Which led me to the idea that there is a difference between “being responsive” and responsive web design. That responsiveness was something larger.

Jason’s post hits on a lot of the same points I’ve been struggling with myself. In my comment on his post, I suggested that maybe the term for this larger concept has already been created.

I’ve been down this path too. In fact, I still go down it sometimes. I like the idea of “responsiveness” having a larger meaning, because I think the term fits: good web design requires being responsive to more than what fluid layouts, fluid images and media queries alone can provide.

However, “responsive web design” is a term with such a specific definition firmly entrenched to so many, that trying to extend its definition just seems to cause trouble.

Maybe the term has already been coined for the bigger idea? “Future-friendly” seems a large enough idea encompass the larger principles you’re suggesting and does so without conflating more specific terms. It also has the benefit of not dictating the techniques being used (leaving room for responsive web design to be paired with whatever else helps you get the job done) and it certainly better represents the idea that “The best responsive web designs are doing much more.”

Either way, I’m really happy Jason wrote the post because I think we need all the attention on the “more” as possible (this is also why I’m so excited for Scott Jehl’s upcoming book). Responsive design is an awesome technique but not a goal unto itself. That’s where a lot of the confusion comes in.

We’ve done a really good job of advocating for responsive design. There have been plenty of posts, conference talks and even a few books covering the subject. We praise companies that release their shiny new responsive sites. Responsive design is now widely seen as a Very Good Thing™. This is good. Adopting approaches like responsive design represents a serious maturation in the way we view the web.

Maybe we’ve been too successful, however. Responsive design has taken on life as a buzzword. To many people responsive design is being viewed as a synonym for multi-device design (Ronan Cremin’s comment on Jason’s post recognizes this). Use a fluid grid, put some media queries in place, and then proudly announce that your site is now friendly no matter the device in use.

It sounds silly when you read it, but you don’t have to look far to see companies making this mistake. They’re focused so much on being “responsive” that they’re overlooking so many of the other things that go into a good experience.

Responsive design won’t fix your content problems. Considering screen size only while ignoring other factors won’t give you the best possible experience. Responsive design does not allow you to forget about performance.

Stephanie Rieger has written about what I think is the healthiest way of looking at “responsive design”—as a characteristic. When viewed this way, responsive design doesn’t preclude you from any other techniques in your implementation that may be appropriate. Instead, it is simply a piece of the puzzle.

We used to go crazy over sites that were built with CSS instead of table-based layouts. Eventually, as our understanding of the it matured, we moved from boasting about how we built our last site using CSS to accepting it as another facet of building a good site. Along with well-structured markup, efficient JavaScript and any other technique required to provide a quality experience.

If there’s one thing I hope we see in the upcoming year it’s this sort of maturity: that we’ll stop celebrating sites simply for being responsive and instead view it as just another (important!) characteristic of a well-built site.

As Jason said:

  • Does it adapt to screen size?
  • Does it take advantage of device capabilities?
  • Is it accessible anywhere?
  • Does it work well?

For our users, those are the things that matter.