Arguments about whether companies should design for mobile first or should employ responsive design techniques miss the point. It’s not the device, or the platform, but the experience that matters. Those businesses that fail to realize this will struggle to deliver great customer experiences.
Instead we propose an omni-channel approach to web design which focuses first and foremost on delivering contextual customer experiences, not on designing for any one device.
We call this Responsive Experience.
Responsive Experience (RE) is a design philosophy that encompasses not just how one should approach designing for mobile but for all devices. And unlike most buzzwords the words here are particularly important because we don’t mean responsive in the way “responsive design” is bandied about -- we take being responsive to be a directive that should come through in every aspect of your web design.
Great design should seek to create an experience responsive to who you are, what you need and where you’re coming from. In short RE calls for crafting online experiences that are responsive to individuals, not just segments or averages.
Crafting experiences which are responsive to individual’s particular context -- what platform they are using, where they are using it and most of all what they want to accomplish -- takes insight. That means hard data about what content people are accessing on which devices and it means customer journey mapping.
Once you have the necessary insight into the customer and have decided which devices will be the primary focus, you can design the information architecture and figure out the best way for the user to navigate that information. This will be based in the technical capabilities of the device like screen resolutions and size, user interface, processing power and features like gps functionality. These technical capabilities, in large part, define what people are looking for on that device.
To make a plan a reality, keep in mind five principles for Responsive Experience:
Principle #1: Content should be organized in a way that makes sense for what people are generally looking for on that device
A great way to think about this is in terms of a restaurant: generally speaking if you are accessing a restaurant's website from a desktop you will be browsing the menu, looking at reviews, checking out photos -- basically text and image heavy content. However if you are accessing from your iPhone you are usually just looking for the location and opening/closing times, maybe looking for a menu; therefore those things should appear prominently.
Principle #2: All content should be accessible from any device
Continuing with the restaurant metaphor, most smartphone users may just be looking for the location of the restaurant or its phone number, but if they want to look at the menu, pictures or reviews they should be able to do so. This is why we generally take a dim view of completely separate mobile websites: too often it becomes web designers unnecessarily limiting the experience.
Principle #3: Keep it familiar
The more time you have to spend teaching the user how to interact with your site the less time they are going to spend actually using it and absorbing the content. Take advantage of the device’s pre-existing interface language. For an iPhone that might mean swiping left with a finger reveals a menu or using common iconography like a printer to create pdf file of some text. This doesn’t mean that design can’t do anything different, it’s just that it should build on what people already know how to do, not force them to do something uncomfortable or strange.
Principle #4: If it’s not high performing, people will leave
While that ten minute long, hi-def, introductory movie about your company may be really cool, people are not going to appreciate how long it takes to load, especially if they are loading it over their cell network. Don’t present bandwidth intensive content on a device that can’t handle it.
Principle #5: Not all content needs to be optimized for every device
No we aren't contradicting ourselves. While all content should be accessible it does not need to be optimized.
Optimized here means designing an interface specific to the device. If you are an enterprise level site you might have thousands upon thousands of pages optimizing it is a massive waste of time and resources. Furthermore it can prevent you from really focusing on making the important content for a given device really great, which makes for a bad experience and pretty much defeats the purpose.
Measure & Improve
Web design is an endeavor which stretches across tech and marketing, and success is inherently fleeting. Tastes and platforms change, new ways of interacting with information will come to the fore. So while slavishly following trends and fads isn't a recipe for success neither is resting on your laurels.
Steve Jobs made a great point back in 1994 when he said: “This isn't a field where one writes a principia which will be held up for two centuries … no this is a field where one does ones work and in ten years it will be obsolete.” Except of course that 19 years later the idea of a design or a technology lasting more than two years is fairly laughable.
This means having great metrics in place to evaluate your design, it means governance models and workflows that ensure someone is taking care of improvements, but most of all it means having a relentless commitment to constantly improving and caring about the details.
Title image courtesy of Bplanet (Shutterstock)
Editor's Note: Read more from our month long focus on the mobile digital experience