Thursday, 6 June 2013

Reject Responsive Design and mess with RESS

It's been a while since I wrote a really nerdy post, in fact I'm doing a talk on Engagement at a SocITM event next week so it's about time I got back to my locked-in-a-cupboard, haven't-seen-daylight-for-days, coding roots. Some of the SocITM event is around based around mobile strategy so this seems a good topic to choose.

You've probably heard everyone talking about how mobile devices are going to take over the world and traditional "static" websites will be obsolete by next week. Of course I'm exaggerating but it's true to say that some time in the next year or so, mobile and tablet use will overtake desktop and laptop use for viewing websites.

You need to optimise your site for these devices, and there are two routes you can take.

Create lots of versions of your site using Adaptive Design (AWD)

So you create a two different versions of your site, one for laptops and fixed machines, the other for smartphones. There's two advantages to this approach, you can cut a lot of the code and images out to make it load a lot quicker and you can tailor the content for mobile devices.

Job done, right?

Well no, the drawback to this is, what do you show tablet users, the mobile or the main site? Sure you can offer them a link to the other site, but they're either getting too much or too little content and functionality for their device. So you need to create another version of your site for tablets, but tablets vary in size so you might need to create another two versions for big and small tablets. Then there's internet TVs too, the list goes on.

With device types are set to diversify over the next few years it can only become a bigger problem, so if you really want to annoy your designers and coders choose this approach.

Create one site using Responsive Design (RWD)

Responsive Design works out what size your screen is and displays the content and design to suit your device. You'll probably see something different on a small or large smartphone, small or large tablet, laptop, internet TV and so on.

So great, let's all use Responsive Design, right?

This is actually the approach many are taking now but the problem with Responsive Design is that whilst the content looks a lot better on your device, you're still loading pretty much all the content needed for the largest device. All Responsive Design does, generally, is hide the stuff you don't need and make what's left look good, so you could end up loading huge pages of stuff you don't need on a small device, which isn't good.

One Responsive Design site will keep your designers and coders happy, but if it's taking tens of seconds to view a few lines of text because you're forcing them to download a load of unnecessary content, your users won't be happy, and these are the people that really matter.

There's a third way

Yes, I know I said there were two routes, but every good story needs a twist and so do bad blog posts like this. RESS or Responsive and Server Side takes the best from AWD and RWD and combines the two.

RESS works out which content needs to be displayed for the particular device "server side" (i.e. before it's sent) like AWD and creates a page to roughly suit the device. What's downloaded to the device then uses RWD to make it look nice and keep the same look and feel across all devices.

There's not much else to say apart from if done correctly, it's the best of both worlds and should keep everyone happy.

This is the approach we're using for our new websites and next time you're planning a new site ask your designers and coders to use RESS. They'll look at you strangely to start with but thank you in the long run, and so will your users.
This blog is written by Phil Rumens, Vice-Chair of LocalGov Digital, lead for LGMakers and who manages the digital services team at a local authority in England.

The opinions expressed in this weblog are my own personal views and in no way represent any organisation I may have worked for, currently work for, might be thinking of working for, might not be thinking of working for or have never worked for. In fact having said that they, might not even be my views any more as I might have changed my mind so I wouldn't take any of it too seriously.