Responsive web design is 90% technical, the other half is content strategy

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Senior Project Manager

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Responsive web design is 90% technical, the other half is content strategy

Dec 17, 2013

Tony Guzmán

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Yogi Berra quote homage aside, the biggest recent revelation I’ve had in doing responsive web design projects is how much content strategy plays a part. The technical work of making a site look good at every screen size is by no means trivial, but implicit in that work are decisions around the priority of content for users on various devices and how best to present it.

To take a step back for a minute, I will say that building responsive websites is much easier now than even a year ago. It wasn’t so long ago that an organization had to really weigh the cost versus benefit of such a project and more often than not, they would choose against it. Building a responsive site was almost like an extra feature - a “nice to have.”

In less than a year, so much has changed. There are now technical frameworks that let you build responsive sites easily and from the beginning of a project and there are many more designers that have responsive design experience. No longer is responsive web design an add-on or an afterthought but can (and should) be central to any build.

Planning for Mobile

With this shift towards making mobile friendly sites easier, the strategy of how you do it now plays an even larger role. Two recent projects of mine speak to this theme of content strategy ingrained in responsive web design. Earlier this year, we launched a new site for the Brennan Center for Justice. A great organization working to improve our nation’s democratic and justice systems. They do amazing work. The site was built in Drupal 7 but was not responsive when we launched it. After some discussion with them this summer and early fall, we decided that it would be a very worthwhile effort to make it responsive. The second was the recent launch of the redesigned World Food Program USA. We didn’t originally plan to make the site responsive but realized early in development that if we used a front-end code framework that was responsive “out of the box” it wouldn’t be too hard to go the whole nine yards.

What surprised me with both of these projects was how much they spurred decisions around content strategy. Namely around what elements were most critical to mobile visitors compared to others. For example, on the homepage of the Brennan Center site they have a standard carousel for featuring top stories. It was easy enough to keep it for mobile users, but we know from experience that a carousel is not ideal for that platform (an argument can be made that they’re not effective for any user but that’s a different post). Carousel’s are hard to navigate on a phone or tablet and just generally not user friendly. We decided that instead of a carousel for mobile visitors we would stack the slides of the carousel top to bottom so the visitor can easily scroll through all the slides. Compare desktop vs. mobile. We did the same thing for the featured stories element on the WFP USA site.

There were many other similar decisions and tweaks like this. To be clear, none of the decisions we made with the client came from the perspective that mobile users were less important. To the contrary, given that almost one fifth of all web traffic worldwide comes from mobile users, we made these decisions knowing how important mobile traffic was to these organizations. The decisions came out of how could we find the best experience for all visitors. The result was slightly modified presentations of content considering strategic priorities.

In the end, whether you’re building a new site and want it to be responsive or retroactively making a site responsive, be sure to plan for making a lot of content strategy decisions to best serve your visitors. Also, if you come to a fork in the road take it!