As I wrote Monday, Responsive Web Design is the star of the PSU Web Conference this week at Penn State University.
I started to research RWD last Fall for one of my University Business columns. Back then, I interviewed several early adopters in higher education as well as Ethan Marcotte, who literally wrote the book on RWD published last summer by A Book Apart.
In November 2011, Marcotte was kind enough to answer a few of my questions via email. While my UB column on responsive web design in higher education was published last February, I’ve never gotten a chance to publish the full interview so far (truth: I totally forgot).
On Tuesday Ethan Marcotte gave a keynote about the RWD workflow in front of 500 eager attendees at Penn State University. So, there was no better opportunity to finally share this interview.1) What problem were you trying to solve when you came up with the RWD approach?
At the time, I don’t know if I was trying to solve a particular problem. I suppose you could say responsive design is an alternative: rather than defaulting to fragmenting our designs, features, and content for different displays and devices, I realized we could use flexible layouts and media queries to design across that spectrum.
Neither of those ingredients are new—in fact, I think of “responsive web design” as a new name for some fairly old thinking. Over a decade ago John Allsopp wrote that we should be designing for the “ebb and flow” inherent to the Web, and not introducing print-like constraints to this young, new medium. I feel we’ve only recently gotten the tools to fulfill that promise.
2) Many proponents of the dedicated mobile website/app approach says that these can better address the need for contextual information. Do you think this is indeed a shortcoming of RWD or more like a moot point?
Well, the notion of “context”—that is, that you can infer a user’s goals from the device they’re using, be they “mobile” or “desktop” users—is an inherently fuzzy area. “Mobile” devices are astronomically popular as people sit at home, enjoying high bandwidth and periods of deep focus. As a result, we can’t just assume the mobile visitor of, say, a university site only wants directions to the campus, and wouldn’t want to leaf through the course catalog.
That’s not to say that there might not be different usage patterns among your own audience’s various contexts. (Luke Wroblewski covered one service’s study into how their readers’ behavior varied from device to device.) But we shouldn’t simply default to treating the terms “mobile” and “desktop” as synonyms for “less” and “more”: less content and functionality on the “mobile” site, with more features and information on the desktop side.
3) University websites face very specific challenges. Could RWD be the silver bullet for higher ed when it comes to maintaining content usable across devices and maintained by different content authors? Do you see any drawbacks of the RWD approach for university websites?
I think that a responsive site can, with the proper planning, make sense for a large number of sites: if there’s a high degree of overlap between your readers’ goals across different devices, then serving a single, responsive design could make a high degree of sense. And there are some fantastic responsive higher ed sites out there (ND and Lancaster University spring to mind), so I’d imagine this could work well for many universities.
Of course, every site is different. So I suppose my answer would have to be: “it depends!”
If you want to learn more about responsive web design in a higher ed context, there’s still time to register for the Higher Ed Responsive Web Design Summit (June 19-21, 2012) featuring Stewart Foss on RWD trends, Nick Johnson on lessons learned from the ND recent redesign and keynote Sara Wachter-Boettcher, a leading expert on responsive content.