Responsive design is 3.4 billion years old
The term ‘responsive’ has exploded across the web design community over the last year or so. It’s pretty much the buzz of the industry right now, and for good reason. But it’s nothing new. In fact, as human beings, we have witnessed responsiveness since the day we began life as single cell organisms, 3.4 billion years ago (ish).
Responsive by nature
The very nature of… well, nature, is to be responsive. To respond, change tact or direction, based on our environment.
Think of a caveman called Bob. He’s wandering about, looking for some stones to bash together to make an axe, and suddenly a bear pops out from a bush. Bob’s brain produces adrenaline, which makes him more aware, faster and stronger and changes the chemical balance of his body to help him escape before getting eaten.
Think of childbirth. I can’t think of a single more extreme example of responsiveness. The way the body can respond to the situation, physically changing shape, size and chemical make-up to accommodate a baby.
This, to me is the ultimate in responsive design. It’s the body, a living tissue, responding to its environment to deal with a situation.
As humans we crave responsiveness. We like things that mold to situations automatically. We build things that make our lives easier – doors that open automatically as we approach, windscreen wipers that start when it rains and headlights that come on when it gets dark. All make our lives easier – all responsive design.
I think (along with many others) that we are at the mere tip of the responsive iceberg. Until now most designers have been beavering away trying to work out the best way of getting websites to change form, in order to look better on smaller devices.
For me the really interesting stuff comes when we talk about context – how the actual content and message of a website changes depending on the context of the user. For this, we need sensors – a way of knowing certain factors based on information we can collect. As Mark Boulton wrote in a recent post, we’re currently limited by these sensors —
“At the moment, all that we can do reliably (well, fairly), and knowably, is use the browser as our single sensor by which to sense. We have one sensor. We need more.”
For me the exciting stuff is really all about sensors and how we can use them in the future. Think about current smartphones. Most have the following sensors:
- Ambient light
- The accelerometer
- Location via GPS
- A compass
What’s to say that future sensors won’t include heartbeat monitors, temperature gauges and many others people more clever than me will think of?
The more sensors we have available to us, the more accurately we can predict the context. For instance, by using GPS, accelerometer, compass, time, heartbeat and temperature, it might be possible to tell if someone had just been for a jog, how far they went, how long it took them, how fast they ran and the condition of their health. The important thing is that all of this could be determined without the user entering any information, or doing anything at all.
At the moment, I think there are lots of questions being asked about how we deal with responsive web design from a business point of view – from the effect on workflow and timescales through to how to charge a client for it. For small agencies like mine these questions are vital, as is educating our clients about the importance of future proofing.
The way I see things moving is into two camps:
Changing the look of a website to give the best visual experience on different size devices will just become ‘web design’, just like standards. This will be built into our project planning, workflow and estimate of cost. We should talk to clients about it and its benefits, but shouldn’t be making it an optional extra. Over time it’ll just ‘be the way’ websites are designed – And we can stop using the term ‘Responsive web design’.
This is different. Really looking deeply into a website project and proposing ways that the website can change its content, message and function as well as form, depending on the users context shouldn’t be standard. This is going to take extra thinking, extra research and in some cases a lot of extra work. For me this is where our expertise as communicators and information architects becomes really important and brings the ‘magic’ back to the web.
One thing in for sure, this is a seriously exciting time to be involved in web design, and I think context is going to be the biggest change to our industry since Tim Berners-Lee got bored one day and started fiddling about with HTTP and a server.Tweet