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.

  • Hey Chip,

    Great post, but I somewhat disagree on with your conclusion. I’m developing a responsive website at the moment and while I think that it’s definitely the way forward, I don’t think that “mobile design will sift out into two paths: apps and responsive design”.

    There’s a third path which companies seem to be adopting, which is to create a specific mobile site, then use that as the core of their app. That’s what Facebook are doing to cover multiple platforms on mobile – the news feed in the iPhone app is, for all intents and purposes, just their mobile website. Google’s Gmail app on iPhone – which isn’t great – is also just a window frame to their mobile site.

    Maybe apps could start using responsive designs as the ‘glass’ in their window frames, but I doubt it. Using a website in that way requires it to be heavily optimised. While responsive design is going to be great for 90% of sites, I think the heavily transactional ones like Facebook and Gmail will still use mobile-only sites.

    • Chip Cullen

      Philip,

      Thanks for the very thoughtful comment. You bring up some good points about how some of the large web apps out there are approaching their specific technical challenges.

      I’m not sure that it’s going to continue to play out the way you suggest. But, then again, who can predict the future?

      When it gets down to it, these apps have their core data/content, then it’s just the delivery mechanism that changes. That’s really what we’re debating here.

      I think in time it really will come down to dedicated apps versus a “responsive-ish” approach for a couple reasons. The main problem with the model that you describe, which yes, is the way several large sites are currently approaching the mobile experience, is that it’s the worst of both worlds.

      For brevity’s sake, let’s say the shorthand arguments about apps vs. the web are “apps:: fast, but closed” and “responsive sites:: open, but slow”. Then what is the point of creating a native app that simply loads a mobile website? You are negating the advantages of either approach.

      The gmail app that you mention was truly bad – for this exact reason. As several people pointed out – it doesn’t do anything you can’t do through the mobile site (with the exception of allowing push notifications).

      You are having to go through the app process, only to have a window to your mobile site? That doesn’t do anything for anyone. And from what I’ve heard in reaction to the gmail app, users know it.

      I think that the larger players will realize that wrapping apps around mobile sites leads to a bad user experience, and will eventually shift away from them. Now, maybe someone like Google or Facebook WILL have the resources to make mobile-specific sites tailored for each and every device out there (and not be responsive), but that still doesn’t make much business sense. There could be a business case that I’m not seeing, of course.

      We shall see!