The case for responsive design

Responsive design

Peter Yared, CTO of CBS Interactive, stirred up a bit of controversy recently when he wrote that adaptive design techniques make it difficult for publishers to monetize content.

Peter argues for designing interfaces that take advantage of users’ familiarity with native device features, such as swiping on a tablet, scrolling on a website and paging through a mobile interface. Elliot Jay Stocks does a pretty nice job of taking Peter to task on his blog, “Has adaptive design failed? Of course it bloody hasn’t,” so I won’t pile on here. However, given the intensity of the debate, I think it’s worth furthering the dialogue.

I’ll start by clarifying the difference between adaptive and responsive design. When a company continually adapts its design over a long period of time due to new data, business models, or customer needs, it’s called adaptive design. Adaptive web design adapts to new devices by altering how the layout of a site is shown on a screen, but it doesn’t have a scalable grid, so the layout “adapts” to the device being used. Responsive design, on the other hand, is built from the ground up and look at the entire breadth of how your audience reaches you through mobile, desktop, tablet, and any other resolution. Rather than designing each channel at a time, a responsive design approach ensures that all channels are approached uniformly through clear content prioritization and knowing how content will display differently by resolution rather than device. For a good example of responsive design, check out The Boston Globe site.

Responsive design techniques can help businesses meet the dual challenge of achieving superior user experiences while minimizing the cost and complexity of managing in a multi-device world.

Mobile Content Monetization
Peter says, “Users are not perturbed at all to see a full page interstitial ad stuck into the mix while paging through content …,” but, like Stocks, I beg to differ. I don’t know anyone who is clamoring to see more interstitials. And while it’s obvious that ads are a must-have for ad-supported business models, sacrificing the user experience with random interstitials is hardly the solution. Responsive design allows you to design ad placement into an experience best suited for that resolution. The point here is that you can control the experience across all resolutions you have designed for, making the tracking of ads easier on the same system. Measuring the success of an ad is crucial as publishers seek to gear content to be contextually relevant.

Consistent Experiences across Devices
Responsive design techniques give users a fluid transition across resolution sets. By designing for the smallest device first, then adding more content and design elements as more screen real estate is available, brands can provide content users need in a consistent format. Navigation and branding remain consistent, regardless of the device. Providing a consistent experience breeds familiarity, which has numerous benefits, including higher levels of affinity and retention.

Saving Time and Money
Using responsive design techniques, brands can efficiently prioritize and re-use content and digital assets, saving significant time and development resources. Those benefits are conveyed across the full content value chain. Contrary to Peter’s assertion, engineers aren’t the only beneficiaries— you can generate significant business value, too. Here’s why: It can be prohibitively expensive to deploy a mobile team, a desktop team, a tablet team, etc. Costs can skyrocket, particularly as more devices are introduced and must be supported from a content, design, and development perspective. A single, multi-disciplinary team ensures business and customer goals are met upfront for all resolutions. The benefit here is that you set up a plan to measure success across the board, instead of starting separately.

To take advantage of the efficiencies inherent in a responsive design approach, brands have to consider each channel in context. Creating and maintaining a consistent user experience across all channels using responsive design techniques can provide significant time and cost savings. Businesses benefit by freeing up design and development resources whose talents can be applied to inventing new and innovative ways to compete in what will continue to be an ever-changing, multi-channel world.

Tim McLaughlin is president and co-founder of Siteworx, an interactive agency based in Reston, VA.