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Responsive Web Design: What is it?

Published on January 27, 2012
Tags: Web Design London, Mobile Application Development

We have seen plenty of times before how the proliferation of new web browsers and new web-supporting devices has led to a fragmentation in how people actually view the internet. We have also seen before that this can cause something of a headache for web designers and developers, who need to make sure their websites display on a whole range of devices.

One tactic that has been developed to help deal with this is responsive web design. This is an idea that has been around for a while, but it seems that 2012 is the year when it’s really set to take hold. With this in mind, let us take a look at what responsive web design is – and whether it is a positive development for the industry.

What is it?

Responsive website design is essentially exactly what it sounds like. It is a way of designing websites so that they effectively ‘respond’ to different platforms and browsers, with the aim that those sites will display as they should without further interference from web developers.

This is in contrast to some other methods of web design, which can require a separate design approach for each device being catered for. For example, mobile websites often require a separate design to a company’s main ‘desktop’ website. There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach, but the idea behind responsive web design is to be more holistic.

The idea was originally developed and put forward in 2010 by a man named Ethan Marcotte. Since then, the concept of responsive web design has gathered momentum and gradually become more popular. You can read the original article on the idea here; it is slightly technical, but if you’re unfamiliar with coding, you should be able to at least get the general idea.

The debate

As with any development in the world of website design, there is a debate as to whether or not responsive web design is as brilliant as some proclaim (if you type ‘responsive web design’ into the Twitter search box, for instance, you should be able to get a decent sense of this).

On the positive side of the debate, responsive web design is a useful tool for designers and developers who need to cater for a wide range of platforms. It allows layouts to be more fluid, and some reports suggest that it can significantly improve user experience, due to the fact it helps sites to display correctly across a wider selection of browsers.

Responsive web design also arguably helps to address the issues raised by so many devices – namely, how to cater for all of them. With so many options for web users these days, designing a website is not the (relatively) straightforward task that it once was. So, on the face of it at least, responsive web design is a positive development and more websites are starting to adopt this approach.

However, there is another side to this. Some people argue that even though it might be nice to be able to display the same site on a mobile device as on a desktop, the needs of the mobile user are not necessarily the same as the needs of a desktop user. This argument suggests that people are looking for different things depending on the device they use and so websites should be tailored to reflect that – for example, some suggest that mobile sites should be smaller and tighter and stricter as to the content that is included on them, which requires a slightly different approach to their design.

This means that, for some, unless responsive web design can adapt to also alter the information that is displayed as well as how it is displayed, it is still worth being somewhat sceptical of it. There is something in this argument; screen size is not the only consideration when translating sites between devices (for instance, how will the mouse cursor work on a small, finger-controlled touchscreen compared to a computer screen?).

Despite this, responsive web design is definitely an interesting development in the world of web development. We can expect to see much more of it throughout this year and beyond as more web designers become familiar with it and more websites start to adopt the approach. However, the issue of content still needs to be resolved, which suggests there is still further work to be done before we can declare that we have cracked the issue of catering for multiple internet devices.

By Chelsey Evans

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