By Paul Vincent
The release of the first iPhone in 2008 and iPad in 2010 sparked massive growth in smartphone and tablet usage. This left web designers with a major challenge. Websites were designed for desktop, often with a one-size-fits-all approach. How would web design adapt to these new smaller screens with both portrait and landscape orientations?
Responsive design, originally defined as an approach to website design to enable web pages to render on screens of different sizes, at the time was not considered a technology disruptor. Instead it was a response to digital disruption.
This article summarizes how responsive design has evolved and will transform digital communication in the years to come.
Before responsive design (2007-2010)
With the launch of mobile browsers and smartphones, some organizations decided to keep their older desktop sites, creating separate designs and codebases for mobile versions of their sites: sometimes using an “m.” suffix in front of their domain (m.sitename.com). However this often meant limited functionality and content for mobile devices. Another major issue was that if someone received an m.sitename.com link on a desktop device, the mobile version would be displayed with that limited content and functionality, thereby creating a negative user experience.
Mobile apps were also being developed by many organizations with a strong media or e-commerce presence. These mobile apps not only used a different coding language from both the desktop and mobile websites but were developed by different teams. This resulted in a third set of unique user experiences, creating more complexity, increased maintenance costs and greater potential customer confusion.
Responsive design phase 1 (2011-2012)
As mobile device traffic grew, deeper customer experiences were required. Consequently, the need to reuse as much of the codebase across devices became a necessity. Wired magazine published stories about major U.S. publishers like the BostonGlobe.com adopting responsive design to create a more seamless customer journey and experience across all screens.
The early concept of responsive web design started to gain traction in 2012 and the standard approach had three versions: smartphone, tablet and desktop. Sites would detect the width of the viewport of the users’ browsers, and display one of these three layouts based on “breakpoints”. Breakpoints are the point at which a design’s width and height will change to a different layout, thus providing an improved user experience.
Responsive design phase 2 (2013-2014)
By 2014, an increasing number of variations in screen sizes and resolutions across all devices meant that a more fluid layout was needed. Using a variety of breakpoints and percentage-based widths covered a wider range of devices and provided more consistent user experiences.
This was a step forward for organizations but efficiencies were still lacking. For example, content such as images were not optimized effectively, often resulting in slow load times especially on mobile devices.
While responsive design adoption was growing rapidly, according to an article in MarketingLand there were significant discrepancies between what Google was reporting and how many of the Fortune 500 brands had actually made the transition to responsive design1.
Responsive design phase 3 (2015-2016)
The HTML5 revolution was in full effect. Flash was obsolete. HTML5 and related technologies allowed both animation and touch capabilities across all devices. Touchscreens weren’t just on mobile devices anymore; they were now common on new laptops and hybrids like the Microsoft Surface.
The richer experiences that HTML5 brought to browsers meant that it was also becoming more popular for publisher and e-commerce responsive websites to reuse their website codebase within native apps, rather than the old approach of separate codebases and experiences.
Responsive design phase 4 (2017-2018)
More advanced browser-based web applications were made possible with responsive design software like Flexitive Design Cloud and messaging software like Slack. Created as a single codebase, they allow access within browsers and through native apps for consistent cross-device user experiences across devices.
The advances in responsive design also saw the transformation of digital advertising creative. Brands and agencies can now utilize technology to not only create efficiencies but scale their advertising across all devices including out-of-home digital display and social advertising.
Responsive design phase 5 (2019+)
While the first phase of the responsive design revolution focused on the browser, the next phase will focus on a consistent cross-device user experience optimized across all channels. Content management systems that provide basic scrollable paginated experiences with simple blocks of text, images and videos will be replaced by full page, animated and interactive experiences.
Responsive design tools like Flexitive Design Cloud enable businesses to build more advanced responsive components at scale, with simple and easy to use technology that will transform digital advertising and design. Responsive design will expand to all future content channels including wearables, augmented reality and virtual reality (AR and VR), vehicles and even robotics.
Connecting live content or data feeds will help streamline internal and external operations especially for global companies supporting many languages, product variations and audience demographics. Additionally, operational alignment of creative and production, combined with responsive design tools and technology will create massive efficiencies and allow businesses to scale and engage customers in new and dynamic ways.
As we enter this new era, organizations that understand how to evolve their design communications workflow and operational processes around these new capabilities will thrive. In a world where real-time is no longer a buzzword but the norm, consumers drive engagement and content consumption, digital design is more important than ever.
Paul Vincent is CEO of Flexitive Design Cloud. Flexitive helps designers and developers to create responsive, animated design components that adapt to all device and screen resolutions quickly – with no coding required.
1 Meunier, Bryson “82% Of Sites Use Responsive Web Design In 2015? Try 11.8%”, MarketingLand. January 15, 2015.