The Meaning and Purpose of Responsive Web Design
It used to be so simple: you’d design a website or application for a 15-inch monitor, and—incompatibilities between browsers aside—you were done.
Then mobile phones with web browsers came along and ruined our easy lives. Worst of all, people loved browsing the Web on them! In 2016, browsing the web on mobile devices overtook desktop browsing for the first time.
Just as developers and designers got used to building websites for phones, along came tablets, watches, TVs, cars, glasses, larger desktop screens, high-resolution screens, and even web browsers built into walls. (Okay, I made that last one up.) Supporting this seemingly endless stream of new devices is becoming ever more challenging.
So how do we support this ever-increasing array of devices? The answer is responsive web design, which harnesses technologies that allow websites to adapt to screens of all sizes.
A lot of older sites, or projects maintained by people with little spare time, are unresponsive. For example, the site for the Vassal game engine:
Many other sites, like SitePoint.com, are fully responsive:
Sound good to you? To begin, let’s go back in time a few years.
“Responsive” design is not necessarily new and is a term that can mean different things to different people, making its exact history hard to track down.
In theory, developers have been creating responsive designs since there was more than one browser. Browsers have always had subtle (and not so subtle) rendering differences between them, and developers have been learning how to cope with these quirks for decades. If you’re new(er) to web development, be thankful the dominance of Internet Explorer’s earlier versions is mostly over. The days of dealing with their quirks were dark.
Since 2004, responsive design has adopted the more specific meaning of adapting your designs to suit a user’s device of choice—typically based on screen size, but also other capabilities. The concepts for responsive design solidified in 2008, but the term is also referred to as “flexible”, “liquid”, “fluid”, and “elastic” design.
It was the inclusion of media queries in the CSS3 specification that fully gave responsive design the potential it needed to be a genuine and more usable concept. We’ll cover media queries in detail in Chapter 2, but in summary, they allow you to change what you show in a web page based on pre-defined screen sizes or types. Ethan Marcotte formally coined the term “responsive web design” in an article for A List Apart in 2010.
This led to a growth and consolidation of other techniques and technologies alongside media queries, such as flexible images and grids, all of which we’ll cover in this book.
To me, “responsive design” is something of a combination of all these ideas and principles. It’s not just adapting a design to screen sizes, but also to other factors such as color depth, media type (say, a laptop screen, or an eReader), or location.
Schools of Thought Within Responsive Design
There are as many schools of thought about how to use responsive design as there are interpretations of it. Some have come and gone, and others have stuck. We won’t cover any in detail explicitly in this book, but we’ll touch upon their practical applications. Let’s quickly cover a few of them now.
When following the more traditional principle of progressive enhancement, your primary focus is on making the site content available to all users, however, simply their device or slow their connection. Then extra features—such as more sophisticated design and functionality—are added for devices that can utilize them.
The proliferation of mobile browsing has reversed the more traditional path of design. In the past, you started a design on the platform you worked on (typically a computer) and then stripped away style and functionality to support devices with smaller screens or less support for certain features.
While graceful degradation is typically applied to the lack of browser support for particular features, you can also think of it more generally. Its principle is that you start with a fully featured version of a site, running on your ideal device and browser, while also ensuring that essential functionality will work for any user on any (supported) device, even if they lose out on nice-to-have features.
Mobile first is similar to progressive enhancement, but more specific to responsive design. It proposes that you start with your smallest or least capable supported device (typically a phone when the principle was created) and then add functionality and style as you increase the device scale.
As a term, “mobile first” can be confusing, especially to non-designer/developer audiences, giving a skewed impression of the priority that mobile will receive in a project.
In theory, the practice ensures that smaller devices don’t end up getting second best—that all devices are treated with equal importance.
What Do You Need To Support?
Before starting or enhancing any web-based project, it’s important to know if it’s worthwhile and to assess the (potential) user base for all your hard work.
If you have an existing website, it may be worth analyzing website traffic to see what types of devices your visitors are using to access your website. If 90% of visitors have consistently visited on a desktop machine, this shows that either your mobile experience is poor, or that your visitors are not big mobile device users. You could embark on extensive research to find out the exact answer, or simply use responsive design techniques to build a mobile-friendly site that may attract new visitors.
If you’re working on a new project, analyzing the needs of your potential users is equally important. This can be done by using traditional market research techniques, creating simple test sites, or looking at your competitors to build a picture of who your customers will be.
Despite the slow decline in sales, there are still lots of desktop and laptop computers out there, and lots of web browsers running on them. These computers include everything from low-quality (and low-resolution) 11-inch netbooks to high-powered desktops with 28-inch, high-resolution monitors in a variety of proportions and orientations, all of which greatly affect the screen area you have to work with.
The percentage of people browsing websites on mobile phones has now reached parity with desktop browsing, so catering for users of mobile browsers is of equal (and likely, growing) importance. For more details on the rise of mobile web browsing, I recommend the Smart Insights report on Mobile Marketing Statistics and Statcounter’s desktop and mobile usage comparison.
On iOS, mobile browsing is generally through just one browser, and the device’s sizes are more consistent.
Android has a wide variety of browsers and screen dimensions available. Increasing numbers of devices running mobile operating systems also have high-density screens of varying resolutions.
You also need to consider that users are largely browsing with touch and not point-and-click devices, which affects behavior a great deal.
Tablet sales may be shrinking, but there will still be a significant user base for the foreseeable future, and you shouldn’t think of tablets as large mobile phones or small desktops. Also, users may be using touch screens or mice to interact with your site.
If handling computers and tablets wasn’t enough for you, there are now hybrid devices, such as Microsoft’s Surface Pro, that can switch between being a computer and a tablet. While each mode can be treated discretely, it’s worth noting that users may switch context while using your site.
Most wearables are yet to gain a web browser, but it may happen. In the meantime, it’s still possible to re-purpose parts of your content on wearables, and these will need to be delivered in short bursts with an easy follow-up action.
Smart TVs and related devices such as Apple TV come with simplified web browsers, and users will generally use them for browsing particular sites, but they’re likely to become increasingly popular. TVs have very large screens, often with low resolution, so sites viewed on them need to be clear enough to see properly and also usable from a distance.
Really? Yes, really. This is new territory, but an increasing number of cars now have dashboards with access to the internet in some form or another. For the time being, sites rendered on car dashboards will need to present information clearly on a small screen, and be designed not to distract or overwhelm a driver and thus cause an accident. However, many cars now have screens for passengers, who will have much fuller access to the web and content.
Most modern game consoles spend some of their time connected to the internet, and some of that time with a web browser. This is typically for media consumption and social networks. Browsers on these devices will likely be limited, and a physical keyboard may not be available. For home consoles, design principles from TV will apply, and for handhelds, a limited mobile experience.
In summary, you can’t predict how and where anyone will view your website, so build it to be adaptable, flexible, and responsive.
Print? Isn’t this a web design book? Yes, but print versions of your web pages will still be frequently accessed, whether for actual physical printing or for rendering your content on offline readers such as Instapaper or Pocket. For certain content, “print” is still relevant.
My recently released book Jump Start Responsive Web Design is available now on SitePoint. It aims to get you started understanding, and using, the suite of CSS and HTML tools available for responding to this new world of devices. It’s highly practical, with plenty of examples throughout, covering:
- The Meaning and Purpose of Responsive Web Design
- The Building Blocks of Responsive Design
- Better Responsive Structures with Grid Systems
- Responsive Text
- Responsive Images and Video
- Responding to User Context
How do we support this ever-increasing array of devices? The answer is responsive web design, which allows websites to adapt to screens of all sizes.