The future will look like Responsive Design

At the MobileUX Bar Camp in Washington DC, there was a lot of discussion around responsive design as an approach to mobile websites. There was a lot of discussion around whether it was a viable approach – as opposed to device-specific designs that are achieved with agent detection. Someone in the discussion even said that they feel like responsive design feels like a “temporary solution”.

Ultimately, I believe that the future of mobile design will look a lot like what we currently call “Responsive Design”. Though, we may not be using the particular nuts and bolts that we use today. For example, something could replace media queries. But I do think the general thinking that goes into a responsive design will be the way to go.

Flexible layouts and media assets, coupled with layouts that shift depending on device resolution, is the most forward-looking and flexible approach that we have to work with.

I think that device-specific implementations will ultimately go the “App” route – as they should. If you want to deliver a specific experience on a specific platform, it will make more and more sense to create a native application that can take advantage of all that platform’s technologies.

If you want to create a website, however, that is aimed at a multi-platform audience, you will in time be forced into a Responsive approach. At the MobileUX Bar Camp, we heard from a designer who worked on a mobile site that had to work across a specific range of phones (it was a site built for one of the carriers themselves). He described how they had to have an exhaustive list of dozens of these devices, and had to check the design for each one. There was a process that involved serving specific styles for each phone based on what the user agent detection picked up.

That was just for one carrier.

In the U.S. there are at least four major carriers.

That simply isn’t sustainable. The designer who brought up this project agreed that it isn’t. There are simply too many devices out there, and more are getting added every day. Even the biggest design groups won’t be able to keep up, and keep testing sites for each one. Hence the need for a flexible approach, such as responsive design.

Now, this isn’t meant to get all dogmatic about responsive design. Even Ethan Marcotte, who introduced the concept and coined the phrase, doesn’t think it’s the right solution for every situation.

It is my belief, however, that the future of mobile design will sift out into two paths: apps and responsive design. User agent detection, and serving device specific sites, will simply prove untenable.