June 05, 2013 - 4 comments

What you want, when you want it: the development of Responsive Design

As we stand, responsive design is about techniques to make a website work across any device, but moves are afoot to take it even further.

A smartphone has fewer pixels on the screen and therefore requires different interactions to typical desktops or laptops. To prevent the need for multi-platform websites, responsive design works by cutting up sites, slicing them down and altering images to make them fit onto the user’s device.

In the years since the first iPhone slowly connected to the Internet, we web and UX designers have worked out how to present information on something that is the size of a 1970’s Football Card; how to deal with reduced bandwidth, and how big buttons need to be for big fingers. We have become skilled at ensuring we reduce information to show only that what is fundamental, and this has made for a better web experience across all platforms.

If that is Responsive Design 101 then the Responsive Design 102 will be about reacting to other available factors which are seldom asked for. Time of day is an obvious example – as part of a proposal to a “popular” rail company in the North of England, I once pitched that between the hours of 07:00 and 09:30 we could assume that customers would be far more interested in how a single or specific train is running, rather than looking to buy tickets for another part of the network on some future date. As a result, the site adapted accordingly to serve the actual contextual needs of the user.

If that level of responsive design is concerned with the information that can be pulled from devices, then convergence serves up a sea of information to respond to. While it may have been a nice thing for a site to use GPRS to pick up where you are from, and tell you what you are near when you arrive in a city, aggregating buckets of this data can now tell you where you can do whatever it is that you would like to do in that city.

“Turn up in a town and we know you like Salsa from your web history – there is a dancehall within a mile of your location.” This kind of thing terrifies some who have privacy concerns but, with that sea of information available, dipping into it becomes an increasingly attractive way to communicate with users.

This type of personalised interaction – which users say they don’t want and yet respond to in massive and increasing numbers – is being done away from web browsers. This is best typified with the emergence of Google Glass – the wearable computer that uses the information from your ubiquitous Google profile and pushes it literally in front of your eyes. Glass will not only tell you about the Salsa dancehall, but it will show you directions to it once it has taken you to the local outfitter to get your ruffled purple shirt.

The world of web browser based sites starts to look stolid in this context. Like the brochures it replaced, and the UX principles we lived by that made it easy for a user to find one of many things, it starts to look old fashioned in a world where the things you need can be offered directly to you, with what seems like a minimum of fuss.

As the Internet of Things ramps up responsive design, we will have more and more things that our sites need to respond to – and the extrapolation of that leads to interesting collations. In an Internet of Things, if the ruffled purple shirt can tell your profile that it has been taken out of the wardrobe and is on the move, then it can be assumed you are wearing it. If it goes near the aforementioned dancehall, that is yet more information, but nothing that is really useful.

Once the correlation is made between a bloke wearing his ruffled purple shirt and Salsa dancing, and the fact that the rest of his evening is his happiest period of the week, then we can start to consider that a person in such a happy zone might be more tempted to buy a frivolous product over a practical one. They might be more inclined to a make a spur of the moment booking, to be adventurous. That is useful information.

And this is information the responsive web designer can – and perhaps ultimately will have to – respond to. Increasingly, the web is a personal medium, shifting from that which you might think you need now and instead aiming for the intangible point of that which you might feel you need.