Today’s New York Times redesign has lit up Twitter and other services with many saying “… but, it isn’t responsive”. I quickly recalibrated who knows mobile design / development and who is still learning. Responsive design has become the mantra the zombies repeat for mobile. Responsive is one of the five options for mobile and most often the end product doesn’t end up with responsive as the best answer, it is the intermediary stage answer if needed.
I am going to start with looking at understanding mobile and the user, then look at how we got to responvie design, then look at the New York Times (which, I think is the most important piece of this whole piece).
Understanding Mobile and the User
The history of mobile and designing and developing for it goes back far beyond the iPhone and Android. It predates the years of smart phones that came before this current iteration, and gets it starts about the Post-WAP age (it actually starts with WAP, but it was so bloody limited and poor most skipped it). Early mobile started with the PALM generation of devices and building web pages that worked on the go (often through AvantGo or similar) or network connected apps. The design and thinking process, as far as which to use route to go started with understanding a few things (I framed these in 2003 in presentations, workshops, and client work as Model of Attraction Receptors, which I realized never blogged so can’t point to it but will have that shortly as an active link): The user and their use (the intellectual, perceptual, and physical receptors) and the whole of the device system (mechanical receptor).
The user’s basic need is they want the content or tool/service capability on their mobile device. Since the early 2000s more than 60 percent of us in the, often referred to as, first world have had these devices on us to use content we find out where we need it (in the world) either in a Come to Me Web manner, or finding and creating the information out in the world. (For many today the laptop / desktop is now their secondary device not their primary).
The essentials for the user are have the information or service in the mobile device and work. The “working” is where the thinking comes in for options as the question of network connectivity, volume and velocity of change of the content or service changes, how often with the user interact and how long, and is this the primary service or is a just to get one through until they get to their desktop (and are you really really sure about this last one). These are the rudimentary questions to understand some of the use to start making the decisions about options. The largest issue in the set of questions relates to the reality about the network and capabilities of the device as both capabilities are assumed better than reality. Networks are far more limited that assumed and devices on the whole are not as robust nor consistent as hinted at.
The mobile user is most often looking for something that is quick, easy to load, and really easy to use.
The options we have before us on mobile are: Native app, web app, web app wrapped in native app, mobile site (often using media query), and responsive.
The questions and thinking needed to work though which option fits the need best are quite a few and usually best worked through by people who have designed and built through all of the options, and (most importantly as always) been responsible and had to fix the end results. These people questioning not only working with those wanting mobile site or service, but also the users. The decision trees and understanding which route to go can be learned, but takes a workshop of a day or two not a blog post.
How Did We Get to Responsive?
So, with these five options how is it responsive got to the front of the line, even when you walk through all the questions and would rarely end up with responsive as a viable answer?
The simple answer is content management systems suck. In 2009 / 2010 many organizations realized they were late to the game and their site use had relatively high mobile use and their users were complaining about how poor the site was on mobile. (This actually hit much earlier and work on solutions has been long brewing going back to early 2000s as to how to resolve this.) Mobile finally had tipped into the territory of something organizations needed to deal with.
In 2010 Ethan Marcotte shared his Responsive Web Design as a way forward to get mobile web up and running, somewhat as a hack to CMS that couldn’t support other options. Ethan is also one of the many who with Jeremy Keith and others of us from the (now shuttered) Web Standards Project (WaSP) focussed on web design from a progressive enhancement model. Responsive design is intended to be a progressive enhancement approach, it is one of a few “mobile first” design approaches.
A large chunk of Responsive design as it is today isn’t practiced from a progressive enhancement approach and there is a ton of bloat up front, which is very counter to mobile needs. Responsive design filled a gap and serious need. As Ethan points out Responsive is one approach and other business cases will lead to other solutions.
Responsive Design for Content Management Systems that Suck
Part of the need and fit for Responsive web design is due to content management systems that suck. Why do they suck? There are many, but with mobile in particular there are two issues: 1) Content is not stored in a manner that is far enough separated from the presentation of it; 2) The CMS adds incredible cruft into the page that there is page bloat.
User Centered Design and Responsive Design
As Ethan points out in his Responsive Web Design article:
That’s not to say there isn’t a business case for separate sites geared toward specific devices; for example, if the user goals for your mobile site are more limited in scope than its desktop equivalent, then serving different content to each might be the best approach.
The business case should follow the user needs. In the last few years if you spend a lot of time watching how people use their mobile and tablets (how we use them our selves isn’t that helpful other than as a base to watch the insane variety of different use patterns others have and the interaction models other’s use when they are out or even in meetings - something I started doing in the 90s when I got a Palm Pilot as I watched others to see what I was missing, which was an extension to always watching others interact with the world around them to learn for myself (moving a lot as a kid provides this potential)). How people use mobile and tablet has expanded greatly in the past four to five years. The expectations (often users are completely unaware of their expectations as it becomes as natural as breathing for many) for each device and the actual use vary quite a bit. This expansive shift makes honing in to device classes needed.
The last year or so I have been hearing many doing mobile and tablet design for years have been moving away from broad (one-site for all and Responsive) offerings with Responsive to targeted offerings for mobile, tablet, and desktop and using hints of responsive within those classes of offering. The user research finds the needs are different enough across the classes that full Responsive became unwieldy very quickly.
Users Live Across the Patforms
One of the realities of use is it is very common for multi-modal use of sites (mobile, tablet, and desktop) and the need for content to be there. One of the very important user context to always consider is spacial memory. People remember where on a page they saw something. This is really important for news sites as people will see the an article that doesn’t have much interest, but later in the day they find themselves needing that article and often their memory of where it was on a page (Business page on far right column, etc.) is how they know to get to the article (one of the reasons news publications for year have offered a “print view” of their offerings). With most Responsive design this ability to switch between these presentation modes is not there.
I have heard users and content owners talk about this problem for a few years, but it was a train from NY to DC where I saw the deep frustration this causes. A gentleman in front of me was working and had started out in Boston and needed to link to an article he saw on the Boston Globe site that he was reading on his laptop in the morning in Boston. He tried finding the article on his mobile device, which triggered anger as there wasn’t a way to get to the full front page on the Globe’s responsive site, he needed to fire up his laptop. The whole train car started helping him, mostly saying go to the “M dot” (m.bostonglobe.com) site and find the link to the full desktop version. The inability to get to the full site stumped the train (they were mostly New Yorker’s who read papers with mobile version and desktop versions, like the New York Times). Soon the whole car was angry.
The ability to jump to a full desktop site in Responsive is technically really easy, but it is an interaction and design messy festival with state and user desire and intent, which is far cleaner to deal with when there are distinct mobile and desktop versions, as a minimum. This issue is also how many started moving beyond Responsive as they saw their user needs move well beyond was was going to be straight forward with Responsive.
Never has a customer said they want Responsive, they want mobile and/or tablet usable formats that meet their needs. Responsive has been a design middle step to get to providing mobile options relatively quickly, but over time (often not much time) that moves beyond what makes sense. The need to design for user needs goes back to the old mobile foundation of thinking first about all the actual user needs and all the options properly.
The New York Times and Mobile
This started with the New York Times and its redesign. The New York Times has long had a mobile version of their site that is mobile specific. They have a CMS that makes it relatively straight forward to work their content not only into mobile site, but many other options. The New York Times has continually had some great folks who think across platforms that users are using and designing for needs there. The New York Times also has long running experiments that try many different things, like their Skipper Interface.
I bring up the Times not only because of how users actual use what they offer. I know a few Times digital folks and know many who have been part of the digital Times team of the years and even lead it.
The New York Times rough usage patterns for mobile split to roughly even thirds across mobile web (their mobile.nytimes.com) site, their mobile native apps, and full desktop use of the site on mobile devices. Another interesting piece is people bounce from one mode of reading and interacting to another (so read mobile web and shift to desktop or to mobile app) during their session (tracked with user login I assume). [These are from conversations with some current “not on the record” mentions and others at conferences who worked in that group have talked about roughly current use metrics third hand. I had them only roughly confirmed with a “that sounds about right”, but haven’t followed up with going through the New York Times press office to get official quotes.)
What is really interesting is there is no one dominant pattern for mobile users of the New York Times (this also applies to many other services who actually do user pattern research). Not only is there no dominant pattern, but users bounce between the different offerings. I have many times heard readers of the Times telling other readers they will find an article they are looking for in one interface but prefer to read it in another. Different interfaces of the different offerings resonate with people differently (the truth in “there is no one way proves true yet again”) and user patterns for discovery and use/consumption vary too.
Where Does This Leave Us?
One thing that has long been true is the New York Times understands mobile (has the data to influence design - not sure that is how it is used, so just guessing) really well. Also proving many who think they do shouting “Responsive” likely have a long way to go get to that understanding.
We are left, just like we were in the early 2000s, needing to understand mobile broadly and deeply as well as understanding how people actually are using mobile. We need to understand how to work through the questions needed to get to the needed solution for mobile and mobile use (as well as tablets, which need slightly different focus). When you walk through the questions and do the research likely Responsive is not the solution that best fits. It still could be a decent option as an in between step, but the essential first step is to learn the options and how to think through them.