Responsive Design: It’s not just about the pixels!

It feels like responsive websites have been with us for a long time, but in fact it’s been less than five years since Ethan Marcotte’s groundbreaking book, Responsive Web Design, kicked things off. Then again, five years is an incredibly long time on the internet!

In short, Responsive Design is about crafting a website that is able to work across the ever increasing array of devices on which we all consume digital content. We (quite rightly!) expect the sites we visit to work as well on our phones as they do on our laptops. Designs that are able to reorder themselves, resizing content and shifting things around to suit the situation, have proliferated. Sounds like job done, doesn’t it? 

Well, not really. While the size of the screen you use obviously has a big influence on the content you consume, we shouldn’t forget to consider how the interaction style might change from one device to the next. That is to say, the switch from the precise cursor of the computer experience to the comparatively ‘blunt instrument’ that is our fingers and thumbs can turn a lovely list of clickable links on desktop into an unusable mess on a touchscreen. Having a good, responsive user interface is every bit as important as having content that comfortably works across a range of platforms.

This shift opens up a whole new area of thought for digital designers, in many ways taking us into the realms of industrial design; not just ensuring buttons and links are of a size that’s easy to press (and not so close to other calls to action that the user ‘misses’ and presses something else by a mistake), but also considering how the user is holding their device, how far they can comfortably reach with their thumb without dropping their phone and so on. As you can imagine, there are many constantly varying targets for us to deal with.

Touch is just the beginning. New generation devices are taking us even further from the traditional cursor/screen interface. Apple has already introduced pressure sensors on its products (Force / 3D Touch) adding how hard you press, not just where you press on your screen, into the mix. In years to come we can expect to interact with our devices through gesture and movement. Increasingly advanced AI will allow us to engage comfortably through voice, in effect having conversations with digital platforms. Even virtual reality, with Facebook’s Occulus Rift and Microsoft’s Holo Lens destined for the consumer market, will have a huge impact on what users will come to expect of a truly responsive, digital experience.

In many ways, our job is getting harder, but it’s an amazing opportunity to create new and exciting designs to handle these challenges!