Friday 13 November 2015

The Responsive Emperor has no Clothes

Originally published by Computer Weekly

For some time it's been apparent that like the famous fairy tale emperor, responsive design lacks some essential items of clothing, but debate about this has been limited by almost overwhelming group think and fashion.

Google recently played the role of the small boy in that fairy tale in making the announcement of Accelerated Mobile Pages. In Google's announcement we see a refreshing acceptance that there is a problem with the Web on mobile. Even more refreshing is that the argument is conducted on a down to earth pragmatic and commercial basis, rather than on an abstract technological, aesthetic basis which resolutely ignores the commercial point of an organisation having a Web site in the first place.

So Web site owners are suffering, their users are suffering too. Responsive Web Design on its own is quite simply not enough of an answer. And it’s unhealthy - lashings of Javascript poured over everything leads to sclerosis.

The first step, they say, is to acknowledge that there is a problem the next step, apparently, is to seek help.

So what help does Google offer? Well, sensibly, they say they are tackling the problem one step at a time. They offer a remedy for primarily static pages that carry advertising. That's great, but the approach they advocate is not startlingly different to advice that has been available from the W3C in the form of Mobile Web Best Practices for many years. 

Things were quite different when that document was written, but the basics are still quite sound especially when you realise that those recommendations were written at a time when most Web pages were primarily static and responsive design had not become a creed. So it’s not surprising that Google’s recommendations applied to static pages and the historic view are reasonably well aligned.

To take a specific example. In AMP you note the size of an image in the HTML and that is the size of the image for once and for all. This avoids the browser having to shift pages around as they load, one of the main causes of poor user experience - if you start reading something then suddenly it changes position, well that isn’t good, is it.

Knowing what size you want an image to be up front requires an understanding of the context in which the image is to be displayed - i.e. is this being shown on a 27 inch desktop monitor, or is it to be displayed on a small hand-held screen? The techniques that allow Web sites to determine this kind of information have been around for a while. Businesses and brands that require better than a hit or miss user experience already use device detection as part of their Web presence.

Determining the size of an image in advance is just one specific example of what AMP requires and what device detection provides the answer to. Many other aspects of user experience are improved by using this technique which is highly complementary to AMP.

Responsive design is by no means dead, but it’s really beyond time that that its limitations were acknowledged and that debate moves on to discussing how to improve the real world of the Web, improve user experience and help Web site owners to improve what is now an essential part of their business.

Kudos to Google for extending the emperor's wardrobe.

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