In the world of information technology it seems new buzzwords are introduced and adopted daily. A phrase you may have heard used with growing regularity is ‘responsive web design’. You will hear it used a lot more over the coming months too, as 2013 has been dubbed the year of responsive design by influential tech website Mashable.
The term responsive web design (RWD) was first used by Ethan Marcotte in a 2010 article on A List Apart. Marcotte highlighted the transient nature of publishing on the web compared to print media. People access websites on a wide range of devices: some may use a desktop PC, others a small netbook, some a tablet and still others a smartphone. With the number of devices growing all the time it becomes harder to tailor websites to specific devices. So developers have three choices: design sites specific to every possible device, ignore the needs of some users, or find a way to make their site adapt to a range of device factors.
The first is a non-starter as you would end up with literally hundreds of versions of the one site, a prospect no web manager would welcome.
The second risks neglecting a large number of your key stakeholders: the users. This never makes business sense.
So the third option is the only real solution: create a single website that can deliver the same content to any device.
The key principle in responsive web design is flexibility. To cater for the hundreds of screen sizes available RWD relies on flexible layouts and not a fixed design. So users on a widescreen desktop PC may see a wide 3 or 4 column layout, while smartphone users may view the same content in a long single column site. Designs can also make use of additional elements like tabbed interfaces on smaller screens to switch between content and maximise space.
RWD is a young and evolving technique and there are still major obstacles to be overcome, particularly with delivering different images for high and low bandwidth connections. However, in a marketplace saturated with all kinds of internet-enabled devices it is a vital tool for delivering content to the widest possible audience.