Tags: gov.uk

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A Gov Supreme

I’ve been doing some workshopping and consultancy at a few different companies recently, mostly about responsive design. I can’t help but feel a little bad about it because, while I think they’re expecting to get a day of CSS, HTML, and JavaScript, what they actually get is the uncomfortable truth that responsive design changes everything …changes that start long before the front-end development phase.

I explain the ramifications of responsive design, hammer on about progressive enhancement like a broken record, extoll the virtues of a content-first approach, exhort them to read A Dao of Web Design, and let them know that, oh, by the way, your entire way of working will probably have to change.

Y’see, it’s my experience that the biggest challenges of responsive design (which, let’s face it, now means web design) are not technology problems. Sure, we’ve got some wicked problems when dealing with non-flexible media like bitmap images, which fight against the flexible nature of the web, but thanks to the work of some very smart and talented people, even those kinds of issues are manageable.

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

Old waterfallesque processes where visual designers work entirely in Photoshop before throwing PSDs over the wall to developers just don’t cut it any more. Old QA testing processes that demanded visual consistency across all browsers and platforms are just ludicrous.

The thing is …those old processes were never any good. We fooled ourselves into thinking they worked, but that was only because we were working from some unfounded assumption: that everyone is on broadband, that everyone has a nice big screen, that everyone has a certain level of JavaScript capability. The explosion in diversity of mobile devices (and with it, the rise of responsive design) has shone a light on those assumptions and exposed those old processes for the façades that they always were.

When I’m doing a workshop and I tell that to designers, developers, and project managers, they often respond by going through the five stages of grief. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression …I try to work with them through those reactions until they ultimately get to acceptance.

Somewhere between the “bargaining” and “depression” phase, somebody inevitably passes the buck further up the chain:

“Oh, we’d love to do what you’re saying, but our clients would never go for it.” Or “You’ve convinced me but there’s no way our boss will ever agree to this.”

I’ve got to be honest: sometimes I think we use “the client” and “the boss” as a crutch. I’m also somewhat bemused when people ask me for advice to help them convince their client or their boss. I don’t know your boss—how could I possibly offer any relevant advice?

Still, I’ve written about this question of “How do I convince…?” before:

Something I’ve found useful in the past is the ability to point at trailblazers and say “like that!” Selling the idea of web standards became a whole lot easier after Doug redesigned Wired and Mike redesigned ESPN. It’s a similar situation with responsive design: clients are a lot more receptive to the idea now that The Boston Globe site is live.

When it comes to responsive design, there’s one site that should thoroughly shame anyone who claims that they can’t convince their boss to do the right thing: GOV dot UK.

It’s responsive. It puts user needs first. It’s beautiful. It even won the Design Museum’s design of the year, for crying out loud.

This isn’t some flashy lifestyle business. This isn’t some plucky young disruptive startup. This is the British government, an organisation so stodgy and bureaucratic that there are multiple sitcoms about its stodginess and bureaucracy.

Gov.uk is an inspiration. If the slowest-moving organisation in the country can turn itself around, embrace a whole new way of working, and produce a beautiful, usable, responsive site, then the rest of us really have no excuse.