Responsive Web Design – a flexible mobile strategy

The new Dartmouth.edu design will be responsive!
Just what does that mean?

Two strategies known as “forking” and “responsive web design” fuel the cultural and technical debate on the best methods for addressing the needs of an increasingly mobile audience.

Forking includes two development approaches:

  1. native apps, targeted to specific devices (as in iPhone, Android, iPad, Samsung Galaxy)
  2. web apps, which are mobile specific websites

In cases where a standard “desktop” website is also created, native and web apps deliver different content. As early studies of mobile use suggested task oriented needs and the efficient delivery of information, both of these methods tailor content accordingly and require focused development resources linked closely to a dynamic device landscape.

Responsive web design:

  • utilizes standard web development methodology to adapt a typical website to fit a range of screen sizes
  • delivers identical content regardless of device type but displays it appropriately for each screen size

For instance, navigation on a desktop view may be a list of links but the same list will render as buttons or a drop-down menu on the smartphone. Efficiently, a single codebase addresses the layout requirements for the large monitor, laptop, tablet, smartphone and newly arriving shapes.

In the evolving story of the mobile world, each strategy’s strengths and weaknesses fluctuate as our use shifts.

While forking strategies focus content on the anticipated needs of a mobile user, a struggle ensues in keeping pace with emerging device shapes and sizes. Generally utilitarian, these apps find their success as the handy tools we’ve come to rely on when traveling, whiling away time on puzzles, providing a ready light on a nighttime trip down the stairs and increasingly as teaching tools in the classroom.

Lately, because our smartphones are so easy to use and stay close at hand, we are gravitating towards them, regardless of size, for a broader range of activities. For the international population and the youth generation, more frequently mobile is the first and only method of engagement. Responsive web design fills the need to deliver all desired content, moving beyond the utilitarian use of these devices. For mobile delivery, the challenge of unknown bandwidth makes content prioritization and efficient delivery of rich media a critical part of responsive web design.

For more readings related to this post:
One Design to Rule Them All? Responsive web design in higher education, Karine Joly
University Business, February 2012

Big vs. small: Challenges in responsive web design, Cameron Chapman, March 2011
Responsive Web Design: What It Is and How To Use It, Kayla Knight, Smashing Magazine, January 12, 2011
Responsive Web Design, A List Apart, Ethan Marcotte, May 25, 2010

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