If it doesn’t work for them, it doesn’t work

Before you read any further, I should open the kimono a little and let you know something: I suspect I’m a closet techie. I know, I know, it’s a shameful admission, but there you have it. There’s not much  I can do about it. So, with that out of the way (you have been warned) let’s jump into the world of cool ideas. Just recently, I met the term responsive web design for the first time. Or RWD if you’re a closet you-know-what. It’s a concept that’s spread like wildfire among the web developer community. The idea behind it is quite simple. More and more people are surfing the web on mobile devices, so websites need to cater to them. But that mobile device could be a 10-inch Nexus, or a 7-inch iPad Mini, or a 4-inch HTC phone. Or any of the hundreds of other devices out there, with varying screen sizes. So how do you ensure that the website adapts to them all? You use RWD. That’s where the cool stuff starts. Using a CSS media query, you check the size of the screen in pixels, and modify the website layout accordingly. You don’t just squash everything into the available space. Instead, you rearrange the menus, graphics, columns, headers and everything else so they’re optimised for the screen real estate. So an iPad Mini user sees a different layout to an HTC Mini viewer. Simple, but highly effective. This particular cool idea came from a web developer called Ethan Marcotte. Back in 2010, he wrote an article on A List Apart (a web-developer virtual hangout) and ever since then, the idea has been gaining traction. He even put together a cool (sorry, that word again) demo that shows you exactly how it works. You don’t even need to have an array of devices to try it: you simply resize your browser and see the site magically rearrange itself. I was blown away. Until I spoke to an actual web developer.

One man’s meat

I was working on a website copywriting project, and the client suggested I spoke to the developer to make sure we were on the same page. And on the direction of the website, we were. A less-is-more approach to the home page, branch-offs into more detail, bullet-pointed business benefits, and a tagline that held out a promise of marketing heaven. Then, I strayed off my turf and on to his, asking him about the ins and outs of the design. “So tell me,” I said with an air of authority, “are you thinking of using this famous responsive web design I keep hearing about?” There was a pause. A too-long pause. And then he let rip, pouring scorn on the ‘latest fad’, a ‘crackpot idea’ that was ‘solving a problem that didn’t exist’. On and on he went, bursting my bubble without even realising it. And as we went on and on, I suddenly saw that he had a point. And it was this: mobile users don’t want the full desktop experience. They don’t want all the menus, columns, graphics and so on to magically rearrange themselves to the size of the screen. They don’t have a proper keyboard, so typing is more difficult. And because they’re mobile, people are generally on the move, so they want easy, point-and-press solutions, with big buttons, clear choices and simple navigation. In other words, he said, what they really want is an app – a cut-down, bare-bones version of the site, that allows them quickly to achieve their goal: book a flight, check a schedule, buy their groceries. Mobile devices need a task-oriented approach. And that means one thing: apps. Of course he was entirely right. How could I have been so easily led astray?

Right and wrong (and somewhere in between)

In exactly the same way as lots of other people were. Except that in the case of web design, there’s no right or wrong, better or worse. In some cases, apps are better; in others, responsive websites. The RWD question has the web development community in a spin, as techies decide which camp they’re in and slug it out for supremacy. The takeaway here is simple: ideas are seductive, and often, we follow them blindly. We get so caught up by the momentum of these ‘cool’ ideas that we don’t realise we’re forgetting what’s really important: our readers, customers and prospects. Because it doesn’t really matter what we think – if it doesn’t work for them, it doesn’t work. So what cool ideas have floated your boat recently? Have you felt, as I did, the surge of enthusiasm and the rush of admiration? The helter-skelter ride of seduction? The absolute confidence that you were onto a winner? A new website, app, marketing campaign, pricing structure, special offer or membership scheme? If so, take a moment, temper your enthusiasm and take a long, hard look at it. Play devil’s advocate, and force yourself to list the negatives. You may well find that just like responsive web design, it’s not as attractive as it initially seems. Find out more:
  • Revolution or evolution? The article by Ethan Marcotte on A List Apart that kicked off the RWD debate. Try out that cool demo by resizing your screen.
  • A balanced view: Forbes.com puts the case for and against responsive web design.