The Best Time to Design on the Web

I just finished a marathon. Well, it was a marathon for my mind.

Two books have recently been published and they are poised to take the web design community by storm. The first was Adaptive Web Design by Aaron Gustafson and the second Responsive Web Design by Ethan Marcotte. If I was going to recommend just one book, I would push towards Marcotte’s book, but both of them are great and I would recommend each.

I’m not going to go into an exhaustive review of these books, but both of them have found a permanent home next to Jeffrey Zeldman’s Designing With Web Standards, a book I still consider to be the most important book in my very short, very poor career so far. If you care about the web at all, you will read Zeldman’s book before anything else.

Back to my task at hand.

The two books I mentioned at the very beginning usher in a new era of web designer, or perhaps it is the same era, just more refined and more focused. The idea flexibility on the web has always been on a designer’s mind, even if it was how to combat that flexibility.

Now the goal is to take hold of the flexibility of the internet and put the user first and foremost. Using every tool available to craft experiences that allow people to use your website on any device, anywhere, without having to compromise on the content.

The idea of “mobile first” has been going around the web for a little while, but it isn’t a dogmatic ideal to pursue. The idea behind “mobile first” is to provide focus for a design and a litmus test to drive decisions. I’m going to try and burn into my head this thought:

How does this content or feature benefit our mobile users?

That one is straight from Marcotte. It isn’t supposed to limit what you can do, but provide the start of a conversation about what is important for you to be doing. A lot of people will be asking for their “stuff” to go “somewhere”, but the focus of asking that simple questions allows for some objectivity to be put into it.

However, it doesn’t stop there. The “desktop” (read: larger-screened) experience tends to fall into the fallacy of thinking that more space automatically means that it needs to be filled with something … anything! Stop right there and forget about that entire notion.

The focus of starting with the idea of what a “mobile” site might need really just focuses on what every person needs, because you really don’t know if that “mobile” person is sitting on a train on spotty 3G or sitting on their couch with good fiber internet, so you have to make those decisions with everyone in mind.

It tends to come back to focusing on what is important. The question provides focus for decisions.

Responsive and/or adaptive web design using such techniques and tools as progressive enhancement, JavaScript, media queries, CSS3, HTML5, etc. allows for the same markup to be massaged in such a way as to present the content in a manner that is appropriate for varied screen sizes and devices. These are nothing more than tools that can be used in many ways.

The real advancement is in how we are now thinking. The embracing of the flexible nature of the web along with the focus of mobile-first development makes this the best time to design on the web.