Elliot Jay Stocks is a designer, speaker, and author. He is the Creative Director of Adobe Typekit, the founder of typography magazine 8 Faces, one half of Viewport Industries, and an electronic musician.

Has adaptive design failed? Of course it bloody hasn’t.

Posted on 23 May 2012 Comments

This morning I read a ridiculous article on VentureBeat entitled what’s next for mobile now that adaptive design has failed?, written by Peter Yared, who is CTO of CBS Interactive. Read the post and you’ll see that the entire thing is based on the misassumption that mobile users don’t scroll. If that were true, the reasoning might be valid, but it’s not. It’s utter nonsense.

As if this misassumption wasn’t bad enough, Peter’s agenda is skewed entirely towards the impact on advertising. In fact, you could very easily translate the whole article into: ‘listen, we need to get designers and developers to use pages instead of scrolling, because ads get hidden below the fold in a scrolling scenario, but with pages the ad can actually be a full page itself, which means we can make loads more money from advertisers.’

Okay, let’s not blame Peter for his bias. He is, after all, CTO of a company whose primary revenue stream comes from advertising. Of course he’s going to be concerned about the impact of ads. But — as both a content creator and a content consumer — I take issue with two key points; namely:

  • that responsive web design (a term he mistakenly refers to as interchangeable with ‘adaptive’ design) has somehow failed; and
  • that it’s somehow possible to judge success of failure of a design methodology by ad revenue alone.

Please allow me to address some points that are just plain wrong:

We […] are learning the hard way that a one-size-fits-all solution delivers a subpar user experience.

Not only does this completely contradict the notion of what responsive design actually is (the core content might be the same, but the design should be flexible enough to allow for multiple adaptations without needing to know specific device details), but saying it delivers a subpar user experience is akin to claiming all oil paintings are inferior to all watercolour paintings. Criticising the tools is useless.

The tablet is essentially a magazine form factor.

Actually, my iPad’s form factor is closer to my chopping board, but I’m hardly going to prepare dinner on it. Tablets may have magazine apps, and ebook apps might also use swipeable pages rather than vertical scrolling, but it’s only one type of interaction. And if we’ve learned anything about tablet-based publishing in the last couple of years, it’s that recycling print-formatted magazines into an app is a bad, bad idea (unfortunately, most of the major publishers have yet to be enlightened). And it’s nothing to do with pages vs. scrolling.

Users are perfectly happy to swipe through an article that is split into several pages.

This behaviour, right here, is the bane of the internet. Do users enjoy reading articles on websites that are split across multiple pages? Hell fucking no we don’t. The only reason this exists is so ad people can sell more ads.

Users are not perturbed at all to see a full page interstitial ad stuck into the mix while paging through content.

Oh yeah, sure! I just love having my reading experience disrupted by a full-page ad! Actually, I’ll admit that in some scenarios, this is okay. I don’t mind this too much if I’m reading a magazine-like app, and if the ad itself is relevant. But as advertising is very rarely relevant and very frequently infuriating, suggesting this behaviour should become some sort of norm is all kinds of wrong. It is of benefit only to ad execs. See the pattern emerging here?

It is painful for engineers to have to support three different use cases for three different form factors.

And finally, we have it: solid proof that Peter Yared does not understand responsive design. (And I’m sorry, Peter. Perhaps you’re a very nice man, but I’ve got to call you out on this.) The web is not experienced simply through desktop, tablet, and phone; it is experienced in every shape and form imaginable, and some unimaginable. True responsive design is not about catering for specific device pixels — whose dimensions become outdated with every new model that appears on the market — or labelling an experience as ‘this type’ or ‘that type’. It is about creating designs so fluid and adaptable that specifics are not needed; so organic and open that the notions of desktop and mobile and TV and whatever else are blurred. After all, my 11" MacBook Air is far closer to a tablet than my 24" iMac, so the ‘desktop’ label no longer applies. Yet my iPad’s pixel dimensions are far closer to my iMac’s, so ‘mobile’ no longer applies. And let’s not forget that browsing the web on Mobile Safari is a wildly different experience to doing so on other, less advanced mobile phones.

Sometimes, sites work well across the board with only minor adjustments. The simpler the design, the less work has to be done. This is certainly the case with my site, Trent’s, Tim’s, or Zeldman’s. And it’s not because we’re lazy designers — our sites are this way because the emphasis is on content; on cutting away the cruft regardless of the platform. ( Zeldman said it best.) And yes, of course there is a lot more work involved on some websites and applications. But to tar everyone designing responsively with the same brush shows nothing but a gross misunderstanding of the term itself. And, as Fernando Mateus said to me on Twitter this morning, ‘The last person [who thought] a webpage was like a magazine was a 7 year old child.’

So, ladies and gentlemen, we have a high-profile ad executive at a high-profile company who doesn’t understand the web. Who knew?

Responsive design is absolutely the future. Sadly, for many people, it has yet to become the present.

Update: VentureBeat got in touch to ask if they could re-publish this article on their site and it’s now live!

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