Responsive design is about more than just layout; it’s about designing for the Web, which means, mostly, for people with browsers. And that’s just about everything we know about the people who visit our websites: they are probably using a browser. All the rest we just don’t know.

Up until not so long ago, we used to base our designs on some rather general assumptions about screen size and input type. With the rise of devices with various screen sizes and alternative ways to interact, these assumptions have turned out to be unreliable. We need to upgrade the defaults that we use when we start designing our websites.

Responsive Design: A Closer Look

People keep saying that the Web has changed. But has it really? Let’s take a look at all of the things that have actually changed.

SCREEN SIZES

In the 1990s, the Web was 640 pixels wide. In the early 2000s, it grew to 800 pixels. A few years later, we decided it should be 1024 pixels. But five years ago, all of a sudden, something strange happened. A device with a very small screen entered the market. Suddenly, our ideas about the size of the Web did not work anymore. Later on, tablets entered the market. People hold these things however they want. Today, the height of the viewport could be bigger than the width! But is that new? Not really.

responsive design
Screen sizes, shown in a non-flexible medium. (Photo and work: Aram Bartholl)

We never really knew what size the window of our visitors would be. We just assumed it was at leastthe random pixel width that we felt comfortable with. These numbers were always arbitrary, and there were always people who could not see the entire website. We simply ignored them.

“EVERYONE HAS A MOUSE”

We’ve always assumed that everyone uses a mouse. Even though we knew that this was not always true, most designs completely ignored alternative ways of interacting. People who had to use a keyboard, for whatever reason, had a very hard time interacting with our websites.

But because most people did use a mouse, and because back then many designers thought that designing only for the majority was OK, we created websites that were unusable for a lot of people. And this turned out to be a growing number. Many mouseover interactions are completely dysfunctional on a touch device. Because people love these devices, and even managers and designers use them, they are harder to ignore.

“EVERYONE HAS BROADBAND INTERNET”

Another thing we always assumed was that everyone had a super-fast Internet connection, at least as fast as our own. And if they didn’t already have it, they’d have it soon. This was again mostly true; speeds were increasing. But today, more and more people use crappy, unreliable 3G connections all the time. If you’ve ever travelled on a train in The Netherlands, you know what I mean. And if you’ve ever had to rely on the mythical “free hotel Wi-Fi,” then you know for sure that the assumption about the ever-increasing speed of our Internet connections is just not true. This is a big change in our thinking; we really should consider these users. This will have a major impact on what our designs look like.

“EVERYONE’S COMPUTER GETS FASTER EVERY YEAR”

It used to be true that computers would get faster and faster. If you waited half a year before buying a computer, you would get one that was twice as fast, for the same price. This was true of new desktop computers, but mobile devices have priorities other than processor speed. The most important thing for a phone, for instance, is battery life: you really don’t want to have to charge it after every phone call.

And there’s another trend: instead of creating ever-faster devices, many manufacturers are starting to sell ever-cheaper devices. Many people care about price and battery life more than about processor speed. This is also not new: what happened to your old computers? You probably sold them or gave them away. People keep using old stuff. Not everyone has the same hardware as we designers do.

“ALL MONITORS ARE CALIBRATED”

Well, we always knew this to be untrue, right? Only the monitors of visual professionals are calibrated. Most other monitors don’t display colors accurately, and many monitors are downright crappy. Most mobile phones that I’ve tested have pretty decent screens, until you start using them outside, in the sunshine. If you’re lucky, you can read the content, but you definitely cannot see the subtle gradients in low-contrast designs.

I haven’t even mentioned “modern” black and white screens. These, too, are not new. People have always used crappy monitors, and people with bad eyesight have always visited your websites. It’s just that more and more people are seeing a subpar color palette. Instead of buying a state of the art monitor, buying a cheap monitor and several low-end devices to test your work on might be a better investment.

All of these things are not new. In 2002, John Allsopp wrote the monumental article “A Dao of Web Design.” People such as Jeremy Keith and Roger Johansson have written about all of these facts for years and years. And yet, somehow, we’ve always managed to actively ignore them. But we really can’t anymore. The Web actually did change in the last five years, with new devices, new browsers and many, many cool new features. We need new defaults. The old ways of creating websites just don’t work anymore.

This Is Responsive, the excellent resource about responsive design by Brad Frost.
This Is Responsive, the excellent resource about responsive design by Brad Frost.

In the past few years, we’ve been actively researching new ways to deal with all of these different screen sizes. But apart from responsive design, there are many more challenges in today’s ever-growing pile of devices. We have to find new patterns of interaction: we need interfaces that work on any device. Maybe we have to reconsider that enormous photo carousel on the home page, now that we know that not everyone has a cheap and fast connection. New defaults are emerging, and I’ve collected a few for you here.

The things in this article are not new. Many clever people have written about them in many articles and many books. But these ideas, like all good stories, have to be repeated many times so that people understand and remember them.

New Default: Activate

I initially titled this section “New Default: Touch.” But I came to realize that “touch” has a different meaning for everyone. Some people, like me, think of a single tap when we hear the word. Others think about swiping and complex gestures. That’s why I settled on the heading “New Defaults: Activate.” All devices, no matter what kind of input they offer, let the user activate something in some way.

With a mouse, it’s a click; with a touch device, it’s a tap; on a keyboard, it’s the “Enter” key. There are ways to activate things by voice, and by waving your arms in the air. And many devices offer more than one way to interact. The only thing that all of these devices have in common is the action of activating. Most of them are capable of doing many other things, too, but all of them can activate stuff.

Only recently have we really started thinking about alternative methods of user input. We used to assume that everyone uses a mouse. Hiding content and showing it on mouseover was considered to be a decent design pattern. And it used to work for most people — until all of these wonderful touch devices entered the market. What should a device without a mouse do when content can be revealed only with a mouse? Different devices have different solutions. Let’s look at a simple drop-down menu.

You can find a live example of this navigation pattern right here.
See a live example of this navigation pattern.

Written by marcus
Marcus Smith is Digital Marketing Jedi and SEO specialist with Newton Design and Marketing. Marcus helps companies from a wide range of industries to improve their online presence, search engine optimization and branding.