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Interview with Brad Frost

Posted by Jacob Creech on March 28th, 2012

Does your site look great on mobile devices? Is it usable on mobile? Increasingly mobile devices are replacing our computers for daily tasks, and because of this web design and development is evolving further.

Since Ethan Marcotte published his article in 2011 about responsive web design, we’ve entered a new phase in web design for mobile. Some might see responsive web design as just another trend, but here at IntuitionHQ we believe it’s more than just a trend, we believe responsive web design might just become one of the most important changes to web design in 2012.

But what does responsive web design really mean?  Time to ask an expert in this field – Brad Frost.  We first spoke with Brad a few months ago after reading his posts about responsive design and usability on his blog.

Brad’s a very busy guy, aside from writing for A List Apart and his blog, doing interviews with IntuitionHQ and thenextweb, he’s also one of the speakers at the upcoming Mobilism conference on May 10th in Amsterdam!

We think his views on responsive web design offer great insight on this new trend.  So let’s talk responsive web design.

The interview

Could you give a brief introduction about you?
I’m a mobile web strategist and front-end designer at R/GA in New York. I’ve been focusing on creating mobile-optimized websites for a few years now and spend a great deal of time learning and talking about what goes into good mobile web experiences. I made a website that tries to make sense of this stuff. I’m also a musician (primarily a bass player) and an artist. I live in Brooklyn with my wonderful wife. She’s just as busy as I am.

What is the biggest usability challenge for the mobile web?
I think the biggest challenge for the mobile web is achieving content parity. For a long time the default mentality was that mobile users don’t want everything desktop users want. As a result, important content would get arbitrarily lopped off and mobile users were penalized for how they happened to be accessing the web. The biggest challenge then becomes to deliver a full experience while being mindful of the many constraints the mobile environment creates.

Can you tell us a bit more about responsive web design?
Ethan Marcotte coined the term “responsive web design” and he broke it down to three components: fluid grids, flexible media and media queries.  However it’s evolved into something much bigger than that. It’s become a language with which to talk about designing beyond a singular screen size and context.

Before the term “responsive web design” was around, my colleague Jack Bishop and I were using the term “adaptive web design” as a way to talk about how an experience adapts to device features and browser capabilities. As it turns out, at the same time Aaron Gustafson was writing a book titled Adaptive Web Design, which dives deep into the concepts of progressive enhancement. And that’s what a lot of this is about, just applying those concepts to more contexts.

What does responsive design mean for the future web?
It’s becoming increasingly challenging to create and maintain separate experiences for different contexts. You turn your head for a second and BOOM—there’s fifteen new mobile devices announced—all with different screen sizes, form factors, browsers and more. Because devices, browsers and capabilities are such moving targets, we need to find solid ground to stand on.  That means focusing on creating flexible foundations that provide a good user experience to a number of different contexts. So instead of maintaining multiple websites that all essentially do the same thing, we’re trying to create smarter websites that have the power to go more places.

Looking down the road it becomes even harder to predict what’s coming down the pipes. Technology is constantly building on itself and we have to deal with the breakneck speed of innovation. Anyone who claims to know what the landscape is going to be like in five years is full of it. The fact that the future is so impossible to predict is why it becomes incredibly important to design experiences that are compatible with more scenarios—present and future.

What are some of the pitfalls responsive design is faced with?
There are plenty of pitfalls and challenges that responsive design faces. First, I think that responsive web design is viewed as a panacea for mobile design by a lot of people. It’s not and it never claimed to be. Creating contextually-aware experiences requires a hell of a lot more than just adjusting layout. Sure, it’s a piece of the puzzle, but there’s other things that need addressed. User goals can change dramatically based on context, so serving up a one-size-fits-all experience to mobile users runs the very real risk of not giving the user what they need.

For example, a blog’s content is to make a readable experience for as many screens as possible, but what about an e-commerce website?  A user could be at home on a laptop trying to buy a product, but what about a mobile user? Sure, they could be at home on the couch trying to buy the product too, but they could just as well be at the mall looking at the physical product and are trying to read reviews and compare prices. For that user, the “add to cart” button isn’t as important as quick and easy access to price, ratings and reviews. I feel that these are the things we need to consider when designing adaptive experiences. Ask yourself “Why might this mobile user be visiting this site right now? What are they trying to do and what can I do to help them?”

Another big challenge is performance. I mentioned before how we shouldn’t arbitrarily lop off content for mobile users. Well, responsive design fixes that problem (unless you’re using display: none; to hide content for small screens, which you shouldn’t be doing), but it can create big performance issues. Forcing mobile users to download a ton of scripts, media and content just doesn’t make a good experience. That’s why we advocate mobile-first responsive web design, which entails tackling the constraints of the mobile environment first then build up a core experience from there. Conditionally introduce heavier media and scripts when the scenario can accommodate them, instead of trying to cram a desktop site into a mobile-sized screen.

There’s a lot more challenges to responsive design as well: it’s costs more money to produce up front, it requires rethinking the design process, it’s hard to create truly great mobile experiences without compromising the larger screen experiences and vice-versa, etc.  There’s a lot of challenges, but that’s not a good reason to shy away from adaptive design. We just need to tackle these issues head on and collaborate to figure this stuff out. Because the other options simply don’t scale.

How do you approach the actual design when developing a responsive website?
Get designs into the browser as soon as possible. That’s not to say that you can’t use Photoshop or static wireframes, it’s just that those things don’t paint a realistic picture of how things will adapt.  We’ve traditionally followed a waterfall process, but you simply can’t do that for adaptive experiences.

Typically we map out the experience in wireframes and articulate where the experience will split based on the capabilities of the device/browser (for example, here’s how the carousel looks on non-touch devices, but here’s how the interaction changes when touch gestures are supported).

From there we’ll create a working prototype while the visual design team is in Photoshop creating the general look and feel. By the time the visual team has the look and feel in a good spot, the prototype team has the basic site architecture built. The prototype team starts implementing the look and feel while the visual team moves forward with the rest of the design. From there it becomes a series of iterations and back-and-forth between all the designers. The visual team is one step ahead of the prototype team, who’s focused on implementing the previous round of visual designs. It’s not this cut-and-dry though, because the prototype greatly influences the visual design and lots of things often need revisited. It’s all about back-and-forth.

Three things make a responsive process work: collaboration, collaboration, collaboration. It requires everyone being on board with the approach, tackling problems and being willing to revisit designs in order to make them work. This is much different than the traditional waterfall process, where developers working at the end of the line are left with a lot of the burden of figuring out how to make static designs work.

Does responsive design influence content?
Absolutely. All of a sudden, our content needs to be relevant to a whole lot more contexts. We need to be a lot more considerate about how we handle content hierarchy, media and interactions across a ton of screens and scenarios.

Are images still legible on mobile screens? Is there text in the images and is it still readable? Is the image a landscape image whose subject matter becomes tiny on a small screen? Data visualization is currently a hot trend right now, and whenever I fire up these massive JPEGS on my phone I can barely make out any of the text and charts.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher beautifully articulated the challenges of content hierarchy in her post Responsive-ready content. She demonstrates how it’s natural to want to throw sidebar content underneath the main page info, but that it doesn’t necessarily make sense in all circumstances. How layout breaks can very much influence how the user receives the information, so we need to be thoughtful with regards to content hierarchy.

I think the best way to deal with all of this is again to start mobile-first and make sure that all the content on the page is relevant. The less moving parts we have to deal with, the better. Mobile is a great excuse to clean house and gut the bullshit. We have a tendency to fill space with something, anything, if we have the chance. Thankfully we don’t have that luxury on these mobile screens so we’re forced to make some hard decisions. Once that exercise is done, then think of how to take advantage of extra space as it becomes available.

As one of the undersigned on Future friendly, can you tell us a bit more about the idea behind the site?
The idea behind the site is that the future is unpredictable, so we need to be more considerate of this change as we create web experiences. We shouldn’t bemoan the fact that there’s more connected devices we need to care about, but rather we should embrace this diversity and use it as an opportunity to reach more people.

The fact that no one knows what’s around the corner is why the site is intentionally ambiguous. When we all of came together, we realized that there’s no silver bullet to these problems.  We gave some ways people can think differently in order to become more future friendly, but again, these aren’t prescriptive solutions. It was made more to capture a notion than to say “do this or else!” Ultimately, it’s just there to get people to be considerate and to get more brains working on these hard issues.

Any favorite sites or resources you’d like to share with us?
There’s no shortage of great resources out there, and I’ve been doing what I can to collect them on my Mobile Web Best Practices resources site. I also think Twitter is such an invaluable tool for all this. There’s tons of wonderful people willing to share their experience, thoughts and resources. The collective conversation and collaboration that happens on a daily basis is essential to making sense of these really big challenges. It’s really exciting to listen and participate.

What do you think?

Our thanks go to Brad for his time and insights.  We will be keeping an eye out for his upcoming speaking event at Mobilism.

We believe responsive design is a new and exciting trend we all need to be aware of.  With the growth of different mobile devices, we can no longer design for just one or two different mobile devices.

What do you think about responsive design?  Do you have any interesting insights to share? Feel free to let us know what you think about responsive design in the comments below, on Twitter @IntuitionHQ or at Facebook.com/IntuitionHQ.

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  • http://fiddlefly.com/ FiddleFly

    Interesting points however it is worth it to also mention that responsive web design can actually hurt your SEO. By developing for both platforms, not only do you not sacrifice any content for either platform, you also increase your visibility and access in terms of SEO.