Climbing Mount Responsive

I’m back from Munich, where I spent three solid days workshopping with AutoScout24. I’m happy to report that it went really, really well. It’s restored my confidence after the negative feedback I got in Tel Aviv.

Three days is quite a long time to spend workshopping, so I was mostly winging it. But that extended period also allowed us to dive deep into specific issues and questions (all the usual suspects: how to handle navigation, images, complex interactions, etc.).

The real issues, however, were much more “bigger picture”—how to handle the transition to responsive of a big desktop-centric site that’s been growing for over a decade. By the end of the three days, we had divided the options into three groups:

  1. Start making any new pages and sections of the site responsive. After a while of doing that, the team would develop a pretty good feeling of what it would take to then go back and retrofit what’s already online. The downside of this approach is that would provide an asynchronous user experience: users would be moving from responsive to non-responsive parts of the site, which could be confusing.
  2. Leave the current fixed-width grid as it is, but focus on making all the components of the page flexible. Once all the components are fluid, then it should be a matter of switching over to a fluid grid in one fell swoop. On the plus side, this means that the whole site would then be responsive. On the negative side, until all the components have been made flexible—which could take some time—the site remains rigidly fixed-width and desktop-centric.
  3. Rebuild the mobile site, using it as a seed from which to grow a new responsive site. On the face of it, having a separate mobile subdomain might seem like a millstone around your neck if your trying to push for a responsive design. In practice though, it can be enormously useful. Mostly it’s a political issue: whereas ripping out the desktop site and starting from scratch is a huge task that would require everyone’s buy-in, nobody gives a shit about the mobile subdomain. Both the BBC news team and The Guardian are having great success with this approach, building mobile-first responsive sites bit-by-bit on the m. subdomain, with the plan to one day flip the switch and make the subdomain the main site. The downside is that until the switch is flipped, you’ve still got to deal with redirecting mobile traffic—probably using some nasty user-agent sniffing—and all the issues that come with having your content appearing at more than one URL.

There’s no doubt about it: trying to apply responsive design to large-scale existing desktop-centric sites is really, really hard. The message I keep repeating in my workshops is that you can’t expect to just sprinkle on some magic media-query fairydust—it just doesn’t work that way. Instead, you’ve got to figure out a way to reframe all your challenges into a mobile-first way of thinking.

Instead of asking “How can I make these patterns (mega-menus, lightboxes, complex data tables) work when the screen size shrinks?”, you need to ask “What’s the problem they’re supposed to be solving, and how would I design a solution for the small screen to start with?” Once you’ve done that, then it becomes a matter of scaling up to the large screen …which is actually a much simpler problem space.

As is so often the case with web design, it requires the application of progressive enhancement. In the case of responsive design, that means starting with small-screen styles, small-screen images, and small-screen content priority. Then you can progressively enhance with layout styles, larger images, and conditional loading of nice-to-have extra content. Oh, and you absolutely have to accept and embrace the fact that websites do not need to look the same in every browser.

Making that change in thinking can be hugely challenging.

Remember when we were all making websites with tables for layout? Then the web standards movement came along, pushing for the separation of structure and presenation, urging us to use CSS for layout. It took the brain-rewiring power of the CSS Zen Garden to really give people that “A-ha!” moment.

Mobile-first responsive design requires a similar rewiring of the brain. And if you’re used to doing things a certain way, then it’s natural to resist such drastic change—although as Elliot pointed out at the Responsive Day Out, when you first make the switch it might be very tricky, but it gets easier and easier with each project.

Still, it can be a difficult message to hear. I suspect that’s why my workshop in Tel Aviv wasn’t so warmly received—I didn’t provide any easy answers.

The designers and developers at AutoScout24 also didn’t find it easy to accept how much they’d have to rethink their approach, but by the end of the three days they had a much clearer idea of how they could go about making that change. I’m really curious to see where they’ll go from here. Personally, I’m very optimistic about their prospects for successfully pulling off a large-scale responsive relaunch.

There are two main reasons for my optimism:

  1. They’ve already put together a front-end styleguide; a UI library of components. The fact that they’re already thinking about breaking things down into their component parts is a terrific approach (and they also said they’re planning to make their UI library public, which makes me very happy indeed).
  2. Developers, designers, and information architects work side by side. The web department works in teams, but those teams aren’t organised by job role. Instead each small team of 4 or 5 people has a product manager, a UX designer, visual designer, and a developer or two.

I can’t emphasise enough how important that kind of collaborative environment is.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again; the biggest challenges of responsive design are not technology problems.:

No, the biggest challenges, in my experience, are to do with people. Specifically, the way that people work together.

I’ve spoken to some companies who were eager to make the switch to responsive design, but who have designers and developers sitting in different rooms, or on different floors, or buildings, or even countries. That’s when my heart sinks. Trying to work in the iterative way that a good responsive project demands is going to be massively difficult—if not downright impossible—in that environment.

So I’m pretty confident that if the designers and developers at AutoScout24 put their minds to it, they can rise to the enormous challenge that lies ahead of them. They’ve got the right working environment, they’ve got a UI library, and they’ve got the option of using their exising mobile subdomain. Most of all, they’ve demonstrated a willingness to accept all the challenges that come with changing from a desktop-centric to a content-first mindset.

All in all, it was a very productive three days in Munich. It was hard work, but then again, I had the option of rewarding myself with some excellent Bavarian food and beer each evening.


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