Sunday 3 March 2013

A responsive day out

Friday saw a frantic and precision event focused on "Responsive Web Design", or RWD, ran by ClearLeft, called Responsive Day Out, or #Responsiveconf online.

There have been several accounts that have gushed over how enjoyable the whole thing was, and how amazing Brighton is as a venue for these kinds of events. I completely agree, and if it were to run again I would recommend people make the time to get on I'll spare you an in depth review of all the (many) talks and get right to the "#beefcheeks".

Winging it?

There was this phrase that Sarah Parmenter used in the first presentation of the day which gained a lot of kudos...that we're an industry that is "winging it". It was a bit of a "Right on!" moment, and you could almost feel the collective sigh as people felt the burden of having to act like they know it all being lifted from them. It's a shame really that this "burden" is one that we inflict on ourselves as readily as we do, and Jeremy Keith was spot on when saying we need to be more open about our practices, and our failures, if we're going to move forwards.

So, are we winging it? I'm not so sure I agree it's as simple as some may feel.

I know that I am not "winging it", I am trying to evolve. I'm not making rash decisions, or hoping that my choices will be the right ones. I've attended a lot of talks and conferences, I continually discuss our industry with my peers. There may not be a "golden standard" for which to follow RWD from start to finish right now, but that doesn't mean that the way we are going about achieving our goals is hap-hazard or without reason.

But then, I don't believe this is what Sarah was saying, specifically.

What we do have to accept is that our practices are never going to be the same again, the idea of a golden standard, or a perfect process, is something I don't believe we should try to attain. Ironically I think we need to be much more "responsive" in how we deal with individual jobs, the constraints different clients will bring to the work and, (especially if you're a freelancer) the variation of different skills and understanding your own colleagues will have each time.

I feel that designers have historically tended to take the design of a website as a work of art, or at the very least as a stand-alone piece of of online "print" work; front-end developers similarly have seen their builds akin to creating a grand building or structure to be admired. But this is a world now where what we're making isn't able to live in it's own bubble, free of the impact that the world around it can have. This is a world now where what we design and make is part of a wider process of building a system, and systems don't begin with layout and colour palettes.

Indeed, while I agree with a lot of what Laura Kalbag said in her talk, the real job of web design starts well before we start to think about typography and base units.

This is a world that those in the UX field have been tackling for some time now, increasingly trying to apply it to the world of the web, and that is how to create the process of building a website around finding the right answer. Of course this means that we need to start asking the right questions too. This means starting with your raw content, and your audience, both common and edge case.

When you boil it down, good responsive web design is good UX design. Nothing more, nothing less. In the spirit of this conference I will revisit this and how I and those I work with are trying to improve our processes in a future blog post.

PSD hate

Another reason I thought that Sarah's talk was important as a starting point is that it really set the scene for the realities of working on web design and development. Most of us doing this kind of work are working for an agency of some kind, if we're lucky it'll be for one that specialises in website or systems design, other times will be working for marketing or advertising agencies. Whether you're doing it freelance or full time is pretty immaterial.

The 'RWD problem' is only partly to do with our own mentality as professionals tackling a new concept, there is a large part that is still a problem with how we bring people to understand our craft with us. It's simple to claim this is a issue with our clients, it's always easy to blame the notion of a faceless buffon that doesn't know anything as much as you(!), however it is more likely an issue caused by over-complicated communication structures in our own companies, and choosing the wrong person to be the champion of our processes. I don't think it's any surprise that the organisations that seem to be pushing the envelope forward with RWD have people that are passionate about knowledgeable about this way of approaching web development talking with, and teaching, clients directly.

Sarah said something that is important on this issue, and that is that you need to use the right tool for the job, and sometimes this isn't even about the active task of design, but the job of selling in the process to the client.

Let's face it, sometimes your client isn't going to respond to anything but final looking artwork of your site, it doesn't matter how much you try to inform them. There will be occasions when throwing things together in a PSD is much quicker than trying to create a prototype site. The key isn't how you present this information, it's how you explain the limitations of that form of presentation.

Our problems are largely a communication problems. Even if we were as sure as anything in the world that how we've designed a site the best way, if we just present our work as a fait accompli to the client, or rely solely on those who's job is to keep the client happy to both understand and be able to explain the complexities of this work, we are fighting a massive uphill battle of our own making.

Natural navigation, good UX

One prominent example of this new way of thinking had to be the second talk from David Bushell. Talking specifically about navigation, it exemplified how our design has to follow usability measures as a priority. Making navigation that is inconsistent across viewport sizes, or that doesn't respect the limited area of a viewport, isn't designing with customers in mind.

Indeed the big question is, do we really need navigation at all (at least in the sense of a dozen items, with drop down menus, nested with drop down menus)?

Some sites will require it, and some customers will feel more comfortable having it...but it would be much better to give people a journey that they can follow through your content, and it's accepted that search is one of the most universally understood functions in the web environment.

A lot of our struggles, as I mentioned above with regards to Sarah's talk, are about control. Mark Boulton nailed it at the end of the day (though most speakers also extolled the same sentiments) when he said that we need to stop trying to retain control over our websites. However this isn't just about trying to control how it looks, but it also means how we try to control how people use it.

When we choose layouts we need to be choosing them because we are greasing the journey for our customers. We don't put prominent links with eye catching design at the top because we would like people to visit it, we should be doing it with content that we know the customer is going to be looking for. The same goes for navigation.

The reality with customers right now is that we cannot predict, nor fix, their journey. Nor should we! One customer could take a path from A to B quite directly through our site, another may go from A to B, but via another point C. More complicated, they may take the route from A to B over a spread of time, visiting points C and D on the way, but on different devices and in different contexts.

We have no way to say we know what our customer wants from us, and the "right" way to deliver it to them. So if our job isn't to create the perfect track for them to follow, it must be to provide them with the right vehicle in case they don't want to follow any track at all.

Taking the easy way out

There was only one worry that I got throughout the day, a theme that reoccurred very subtly, that we are trying to reduce the web to it's simplest form in order to make this job of RWD easy.

It's been noted before elsewhere that RWD 'threatens creativity'. It's not a new thing, for example Wordpress and it's ease of use has proliferated standard themes across the web, with RWD we see a much welcome (from my perspective) dislike of techniques and decisions that lead to the use of things like Twitter Bootstrap. Of course I agree somewhat with Jeremy's analysis of this situation which is that it's not RWD as a practice that is killing creativity, but bad designers.

However I'd go one step further and say that it is not necessarily just bad designers that kill this creativity, but that it is an industry in a recession, scared of losing business, cutting resource and budgets killing creativity. Bootstrap and Wordpress as "platforms" or "libraries" are primarily interesting to clients and to companies because they offer a way to make good profit margins with little effort.

This has the dangerous coincidence with designers and developers who just aren't experienced enough yet, or don't have the desire to to do more than get their pay check, and can make such a profit aware choice easy to access. We have to remember that for the large part our industry is intertwined with, and funded by, the marketing industry not the creative industry...whether that's directly or indirectly.

It's this reason that I think it's in our interest not to pander to such "tools", at least not without using them as a base to build upon, otherwise you're helping to make an identikit web that becomes soulless in the process.

I fear for a web that has every site looking the same, and while there has been a focus on the bad practice of the use of media queries as device size break points as being the height of corner cutting, I believe the specter of unmodified standard themes and grid system libraries to be even more terrifying.

Maybe I'm being over-dramatic (feel free to let me know if I am!), but I don't want to see the challenge of complex and interesting design to be lost to the world because RWD evangelists push that the ideal is a minimalist style without much fuss, and create a dangerous landscape that suggests that there might be an easy "one size fits all" way to develop a new website with RWD in mind. As a developer I am a problem solver, and tweaking Twitter Bootstrap slightly for each new website isn't going to keep me interested.

We are lucky, a benefactor of chance, to see web development and design get interesting again thanks to RWD. It is entirely in our power to keep it interesting, and I hope we can keep it that way without blindly falling in to the worst of cutting corners, and that is accepting that easy design is the only way to design.

Other thoughts

As I said at the top, there are views coming in all the time, so here are a selection. Feel free to drop me a link in the comments and I'll add yours in here too.

Jeremy is also keeping a much more complete list on his site

Police cars
Brick wall
Lego figures
Group hug

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