‘Responsive design’ may sound like just another buzzword for the tech-savvy handbook, but with major websites making the shift to mobile-first adaptive design principles, it’s clear this is the new direction for web design and development – but are Irish businesses ready?
‘Responsive web design’ was first coined by web designer and developer Ethan Marcotte in an article that featured on A List Apart in May 2010. Marcotte went on to describe the theory and practice of responsive web design in a book released last year and ‘Responsive Design’ was listed at No 2 in the top 15 web design and development trends predicted for 2012 by .net Magazine. (‘Progressive Enhancement’ was at No 1.)
This year, the category Best Responsive Web Design was added to the Irish Web Awards, and Dublin-based agency Kooba took home that prize – as well as awards for Best Educational Website for NCAD.ie, and Web Agency of the Year.
What is responsive design?
“It’s not a buzzword or a trend, it’s really how we should be designing and building websites,” says Kooba’s creative director, Ed Kelly of responsive design.
“It has a number of different names – some people refer to it as responsive design or adaptive design, or device neutral design,” Kelly explains. “What it means is you build one website that can be accessed on multiple devices or any device, essentially. […] It’s an adaptive design that responds to the device that you browse on.”
Many high-profile websites have adopted responsive design, such as Channel 4 News and The Boston Globe. Check out these websites on any device and the content adapts to fit the screen size. Even on the desktop you can resize the window of the browser and watch the structure and layout of the site respond so it’s optimised for whatever way you choose to view it.
Why responsive design?
“In the past, what people would have done was produce a number of versions of websites or a mobile version of a website,” explains Kelly. “But there are problems with that from a management point of view. You’re updating two websites if you want to make changes – graphic changes or structural changes – and there are other reasons why it’s not the most elegant solution. The simplest, best practice solution is to design a responsive design website.”
Despite the obvious benefits, convincing Irish businesses that responsive design is worth investing in can be difficult. “To build a responsive design website takes a bit longer than your standard desktop website, so that has a cost implication and, of course, clients today aren’t jumping up and down to pay more for their websites,” says Kelly.
“That’s OK right now, because people are not aware that it’s such an issue, but it certainly will be an issue in the next 12 to 24 months,” he warns.
Kelly tries to help companies to realise that responsive design makes good business sense. By way of an example, he points to small local businesses reliant on SEO and sharing on social media to drive traffic to their websites. Considering the amount of social media use coming from mobile devices these days, any user that spots your business this way but can’t access a decent mobile version of your website is a potential lost customer.
“They may like what you’re doing, it could be a great deal you’re offering and they want to share that or look at it straight away – but there’s your problem: they can’t. They tried to access your website, they couldn’t do it, they’ve given up and they’ve moved on,” says Kelly.
However, while statistics and traffic figures are driving designers and developers to start thinking ‘mobile first’, Kelly believes the desktop web still has its place, particularly in Ireland. “The desktop web is definitely still relevant and, with most things, Ireland will be a little bit behind in that the desktop will remain, probably, a very important aspect of the web design experience,” he says. “But, as the audience grows for mobile, it’s going to flip the other way around and there is a bit of education involved at the moment with clients.”
The fact is, responsive design is the way forward. “You’re trying to future-proof your website,” says Kelly, “which, of course, is ultimately impossible because who knows 10 years from now what we’re going to be doing. But [your website] should be two steps ahead of whatever the hardware being released right now is. Apple could come out with anything next year, but if your website is adaptively designed it shouldn’t matter; you should be able to view it on any device.”
Kelly also believes that the cost of designing in this way will drop as it becomes more commonplace. “There is a cost implication right now but that will come down as people become more comfortable with the workflow and the production involved in building a responsive design website.”