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Responsive Web Design: 4 questions to ask before you start

By:
December 1, 2012

Is it just us, or did the floodgates of responsive design (RWD) just open? Suddenly, many of our clients are being told they must “make the website responsive!” As more and more clients come to us wanting to redesign their sites, we’ve learned to encourage everyone to take a pause and ask a few critical questions before barreling forward.

Barely more than two years ago, Ethan Marcotte coined the term “Responsive Web Design” in his article on A List Apart. But until this year, the topic was something of a non-starter – we sensed no serious interest.

But here at EatonGolden, we’ve discussed RWD with regularity over the past couple years. There are many benefits: sites are device-independent, more accessible to users with disabilities, more portable, more skinnable, and the list goes on.

When the Boston Globe launched their RWD site in September 2011, it signaled to the world that RWD is a viable approach for high-profile, content-rich sites. Subsequently, RWD has become a bona fide trend; we are seeing a spike in responsive projects.

So many client conversations are focusing around responsive design that we felt it was appropriate to share these questions more broadly. So how do you know if responsive is right for your project? Here are 4 things to consider:

1. ASK: Why do you need a responsive site?

  • Building responsive is not a must. There are still cases in which it could make sense to use a different approach.
  • Ask yourself what goals RWD will help you accomplish, and consider any drawbacks.
  • Who uses your site? And from what devices? Is your content public or secure? Is it a content-heavy site or an application?
  • Answering these questions will help you determine whether responsive design makes sense for your business and your users.

2. ASK: What determines prioritization/break points – content or device?

  • When answering this question it is important to think about what the primary job of the website is. What is the number one thing that it needs to do – and does that job change depending on the user’s device?
  • When designing a responsive site, it is critical to determine the appropriate break points (the specific browser widths that will trigger alternate layouts, corresponding to device sizes) and make decisions that will result in an optimal user experience.
  • Take a close look at your metrics. What devices are your users on today? Are there trends you can identify?
  • Analyze your users’ behavior, and anticipate their needs. Do browsing patterns differ between devices? Will the same content and functional features be needed on all devices?
  • Use the answers to these important questions to determine your RWD strategy.

3. ASK: How will content change at the breakpoints? Can it change?

  • Defining how (or if) the “job” of the site changes per device will help you determine how to approach a responsive design.
  • On some sites, RWD can be simply a matter of ensuring that the content is designed to scale. This approach is usually appropriate when the site content is highly regulated, and cannot be truncated or separated from other content.
  • But for most existing websites, maintaining the content as-is will have a negative impact on user experience. It’s usually not a simple process to just turn the existing desktop site into a responsive site.
  • Content groups will most likely need to be established and prioritized, so you must anticipate that your organization will need to conduct research and make some difficult decisions about what users really need.

4. ASK: What will be the best process for the redesign?

  • Staffing for responsive design projects requires a shift from the way user experience and website design has been done in the past. Do you have access to everyone you need, at kickoff AND throughout the project?
  • The success of a responsive design project depends upon the ability for writers, product/business owners, and technical staff to meet, review work, and make decisions throughout the process.
  • Traditional, separate project phases (the waterfall process) will not work for responsive projects due to the technical limits put on all phases.
  • In our experience, short iterations are the only way to efficiently and successfully get to the final direction.

Overall, responsive web design is the latest in a long history of new developments in interactive communications that can significantly improve user experience – or, can be a solution in search of a problem. Asking these questions prior to beginning a responsive design project will help you set better expectations, and be more efficient with budget and resources. But most importantly, it will help you ensure that your users have a great experience on your site, and are able to accomplish their objectives… quickly, effectively, and easily.

Are you considering a responsive website redesign? Need a partner to help you define a strategy and design an effective solution? Contact us to learn more about how we might be able to help you get off to the right start.

By Tony Johnson
Senior Front-end Developer

Tony has spent well over a decade building interactive applications. He collaborates in the full life cycle of projects – bringing a unique blend of technical savvy, creativity and strategic thinking to our user experience consulting services.

View Tony's Bio

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