Responsive Web Design: What It Is and How To Use It
“Responsive Web design is a mere concept that when implemented correctly can improve the user experience, but not completely solve it for every user, device and platform. We will need to constantly work with new devices, resolutions and technologies to continually improve the user experience as technology evolves in the coming years.”
Almost every new client these days wants a mobile version of their website. It’s practically essential after all: one design for the BlackBerry, another for the iPhone, the iPad, netbook, Kindle — and all screen resolutions must be compatible, too. In the next five years, we’ll likely need to design for a number of additional inventions. When will the madness stop? It won’t, of course.
Responsive Web design is the approach that suggests that design and development should respond to the user’s behavior and environment based on screen size, platform and orientation. The practice consists of a mix of flexible grids and layouts, images and an intelligent use of CSS media queries. As the user switches from their laptop to iPad, the website should automatically switch to accommodate for resolution, image size and scripting abilities. In other words, the website should have the technology to automatically respond to the user’s preferences. This would eliminate the need for a different design and development phase for each new gadget on the market.
The Concept Of Responsive Web Design
“Recently, an emergent discipline called “responsive architecture” has begun asking how physical spaces can respond to the presence of people passing through them. Through a combination of embedded robotics and tensile materials, architects are experimenting with art installations and wall structures that bend, flex, and expand as crowds approach them. Motion sensors can be paired with climate control systems to adjust a room’s temperature and ambient lighting as it fills with people. Companies have already produced “smart glass technology” that can automatically become opaque when a room’s occupants reach a certain density threshold, giving them an additional layer of privacy.”
Adjusting Screen Resolution
With more devices come varying screen resolutions, definitions and orientations. New devices with new screen sizes are being developed every day, and each of these devices may be able to handle variations in size, functionality and even color. Some are in landscape, others in portrait, still others even completely square. As we know from the rising popularity of the iPhone, iPad and advanced smartphones, many new devices are able to switch from portrait to landscape at the user’s whim. How is one to design for these situations?
Part of the Solution: Flexible Everything
Now we can make things more flexible. Images can be automatically adjusted, and we have workarounds so that layouts never break (although they may become squished and illegible in the process). While it’s not a complete fix, the solution gives us far more options. It’s perfect for devices that switch from portrait orientation to landscape in an instant or for when users switch from a large computer screen to an iPad.
One major problem that needs to be solved with responsive Web design is working with images. There are a number of techniques to resize images proportionately, and many are easily done. The most popular option, noted in Ethan Marcotte’s article on fluid images14 but first experimented with by Richard Rutter15, is to use CSS’s
max-widthfor an easy fix.
Filament Group’s Responsive Images
This technique, presented by the Filament Group, takes this issue into consideration and not only resizes images proportionately, but shrinks image resolution on smaller devices, so very large images don’t waste space unnecessarily on small screens. Check out the demo page here.17
Stop iPhone Simulator Image Resizing
One nice thing about the iPhone and iPod Touch is that Web designs automatically rescale to fit the tiny screen. A full-sized design, unless specified otherwise, would just shrink proportionally for the tiny browser, with no need for scrolling or a mobile version. Then, the user could easily zoom in and out as necessary.
Custom Layout Structure
For extreme size changes, we may want to change the layout altogether, either through a separate style sheet or, more efficiently, through a CSS media query. This does not have to be troublesome; most of the styles can remain the same, while specific style sheets can inherit these styles and move elements around with floats, widths, heights and so on.
CSS3 supports all of the same media types as CSS 2.1, such as
handheld, but has added dozens of new media features, including
color. New devices made after the release of CSS3 (such as the iPad and Android devices) will definitely support media features. So, calling a media query using CSS3 features to target these devices would work just fine, and it will be ignored if accessed by an older computer browser that does not support CSS3.
Showing or Hiding Content
It is possible to shrink things proportionally and rearrange elements as necessary to make everything fit (reasonably well) as a screen gets smaller. It’s great that that’s possible, but making every piece of content from a large screen available on a smaller screen or mobile device isn’t always the best answer. We have best practices for mobile environments: simpler navigation, more focused content, lists or rows instead of multiple columns.
Touchscreens vs. Cursors
Touchscreens are becoming increasingly popular. Assuming that smaller devices are more likely to be given touchscreen functionality is easy, but don’t be so quick. Right now touchscreens are mainly on smaller devices, but many laptops and desktops on the market also have touchscreen capability. For example, the HP Touchsmart tm2t33 is a basic touchscreen laptop with traditional keyboard and mouse that can transform into a tablet.
A Showcase Of Responsive Web Design
Below we have a few examples of responsive Web design in practice today. For many of these websites, there is more variation in structure and style than is shown in the pairs of screenshots provided. Many have several solutions for a variety of browsers, and some even adjust elements dynamically in size without the need for specific browser dimensions. Visit each of these, and adjust your browser size or change devices to see them in action.