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The 5 Keys to Effective Responsive Design

If you’ve been discussing a website redesign with just about anyone these days, you’ve no doubt heard the term “Responsive Design” come up one, or a hundred times. Responsive Design, one of the more effective ways to approach designing websites for mobile devices, is all the rage. And rightfully so.

Every design and development decision made during the process of designing a user experience for a website ultimately ties back to your main goal: creating a relevant, intuitive, and impactful experience for your audience. And with the latest projection having mobile audiences, whether on phone, phablet (really large phones), or tablet, outpacing their desktop brethren this year, not having a plan to meet mobile audiences on their terms is a surefire way to deliver a crummy user experience that frustrates audiences and undermines your brand.

But, whereas, even just a few years ago, designing for mobile audiences was viewed as a luxury, and meant accounting for just a few types of devices, thanks to the unrelenting pace of innovation (have you SEEN how many phones Samsung offers?!), website design today means delivering user experiences to a seemingly infinite variety of screen sizes and resolutions.

This is where Responsive Design comes into play.

In short, Responsive Design is a very efficient, cost-effective way to make your website’s layout adjust on the fly for hundreds of different screen sizes your information can be displayed on. With a little bit of smart front-end coding, and thoughtful user experience design planning, a Responsive website will customize how it presents content and delivers the user experience for an almost infinite user base.

As they say, anything worth having takes hard work. And as with any designed solution, there’s a difference between good and great. So what exactly goes into executing a successful Responsive Design plan for mobile websites? To help answer this question, I’ve pulled together a non-technical primer to hopefully provide some insight into to key issues to be aware of if you’re planning a website redesign that includes Responsive Design.

Your Content

Too often, content is added to a website far after design comps have been approved and site development is in full swing (if not completed). But as I’ve discussed before, Designing with the Real Deal, aka, your content, is invaluable in helping designers and developers plan and create a user experience, especially for mobile, that effectively helps you reach your goals.

Unless your design firm is creating your content for you, it’s probably going to be hard to get your content ready early on in a website redesign (after all, you’ve got a job to do that isn’t designing websites). But having the content early in the initial design phase pays big dividends and makes it far more likely that the design solution you fell in love with will translate properly when real content is added.

Limiting Functionality

Mobile phones have limited capabilities compared to desktop computers, so while designing mobile-friendly wireframes and design comps early in the process tells you what your content will look like on a mobile device, what about making sure key features of your desktop site actually work on a phone? Design processes like mobile-first attempt to address this by limiting initial planning only to what’s possible on mobile, and then adding from there.

We prefer not to design for mobile-first, but rather be mindful of decisions we’re making during initial design, and simply have a plan for dealing with them as we translate to mobile devices. This often means turning off certain features that won’t translate well to mobile. Whatever process you prefer, as long as you keep in mind how you plan to deliver a great experience across all platforms by working with what they offer, you’ll be fine.

Responsive Frameworks

As interactive design for mobile has taken off over the last few years, responsive “frameworks,” custom libraries of code, like Foundation and Twitter Bootstrap, have been introduced to speed up the process. What they do is instantly provide a grid or general foundation for rapid prototyping of different mobile layouts and functionality, letting designers spend their time on the details of an effective brand experience (that’s what separates you from the crowd, after all).

We’ve taken this a step further by creating a fantastic base for site development that integrates Foundation with our customized Drupal installation. The result is an incredibly powerful CMS and mobile framework that gives designers great flexibility to design with the brand in mind first, not the device.

Image Sizes

I knew you’d ask about CSS Media Queries! With an incredible range of screen sizes and resolutions, websites need a way to deliver images effectively to everything from a 27” iMac to a Samsung Galaxy II. In a nutshell, CSS Media Queries are little pieces of code that analyze the size of the user’s browser window, then instantly deliver the proper code for that specific browser. Here’s a great example of media queries in action – just click at the top of the page and watch the site resize images on-the-fly. Pretty cool!

Retrofitting Responsive

You have a website you’re happy with, but just want it to be mobile friendly? Absolutely doable, but be prepared to engage in a meaningful discovery process and make some compromises. Depending on the current design and structure of the website, this could be straightforward, or could require some intensive cosmetic surgery. It all depends on how your site’s HTML and CSS are written, and how well your site’s design lends itself to mobile layouts. The only way to find out is to audit your site’s existing code and discuss priorities and potential complications.

A word of caution with retrofitting: expect the unexpected. When you retrofit website code, there are usually unexpected surprises, and things may take longer than estimated. Choices about functionality that may have worked perfectly on a desktop also may turn out to be non-starters in a mobile environment. While retrofitting is not an ideal approach, it’s likely to be more cost-effective than remaking your entire site. So if you’re happy with your site’s design and have no user experience or CMS issues to address, retrofitting may be a good approach.

If I had only one piece of advice to give though, it would be that like any successful design and development engagement, planning thoroughly and thoughtfully for Responsive Design process early on is the best way to ensure fewer hiccups at the end of the project. It’s also the best way for your brand to deliver a great user experience to every audience, no matter where they are.

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