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Responding Won't Be Enough, You Need To Adapt

Back in 2010 responsive web design was introduced as a design philosophy to ensure web content was usable regardless of the device it was developed on.

Developers were previously focused on producing two versions of their website or web application, one for the desktop and one for mobile. Although this was great for users as it provided the best possible functionality for each device, it certainly wasn’t ideal for developers or software houses.

As if having to develop and support two versions of an application wasn’t bad enough, along comes the tablet!


Although the first tablets started appearing in the 80’s and 90’s, it wasn’t until the iPad arrived (also in 2010) that tablet computing really took off.

The introduction of tablets of varying sizes brought another level of complexity to application development. Do you build three apps … Desktop, Mobile and Tablet? Do you leave tablet users on the mobile version with limited functionality and visibility or do you push them to the desktop version where everything is just a little bit too difficult for touch. Really neither of these options are ultimately attractive to user or developer.

A solution that started taking shape back in 2010 and the mantra of many software and web developers today is “Responsive Design”. Responsive design solves the problem of developing for multiple devices and it was seen as the answer to the multi device problem. Mashable called 2013 the “Year of Responsive Design” and it was and 2014 has worked out as a continuation of this.

Responsive Design has a lot of benefits for everyone, both developers and end users but it seems to have been just picked up by many and thrown into usage as some kind of stop gap until the next big thing comes along.

The next big thing is here and it’s really always been there. The next big thing is the user and the future will continue to drive us all to focus continuously on the user experience (not just the user interface). Software and web developers will need to realise that responsive design in its simplest format has its limitations and it’s the software users that meet those limitations on a daily basis. Too many websites and web applications have functionality reduced to ensure a good conversion to mobile, equally mobile devices are normally being restricted to a cut down version of the main app or website with no thought to what benefits the device functionality can bring to the user experience.

As software producers we need to be focusing on the user experience always. Instead of just making our applications and websites “respond” to the device they are being used on, we need to ensure they “adapt” (see Adaptive Web Design also known as Progressive Enhancement).

Developers need to consider the capabilities and limitations of a device and how these can improve the user experience. For example, there is no point downloading a mass of content such as images if they are not actually going to be shown on the device due to the web app responding to the device screen size. Equally if the device has a camera or GPS system in it, then let the user interact from your website or application with those device specific functions.

At ROCC we are currently producing applications using a hybrid approach where we build our apps taking on board the concepts of both traditional device targeted design and responsive design. This may increase our development workload but it ensures we are providing the best functionality and experience to the users for the devices and systems they are currently working with. To cater for future requirements we have begun moving towards an adaptive framework and have exciting plans for the coming year to look at coupling the best possible user experiences on all devices while streamlining the applications we develop and support.

As with all methodologies Adaptive Web Design has its critics and there are some valid issues with adaptive design. The principles it stands for are sound though. Focus on the user, let them choose their device, let them get the best experience from your website or web application AND their device. The user is king and always will be and we need to treat them as such.

Posted Wednesday, November 12th, 2014 by Pete Luck

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