I have mixed feelings about the “responsive design” trend. The build-once-distribute-everywhere dream has been one of the core digital fantasies, at least for publishers and many advertisers, since the days of Netscape vs. AOL vs. IE browsers and the rise of online syndication.
Responsive design is the latest iteration of this idea -- the notion that a Web site can be designed to essentially pour into a wide variety of screen sizes and devices and find its best fit.
Time.com just relaunched this week with a responsive design that works quite well on devices. The efforts address some of the key concerns of media companies in the age of the siloed app. Having a mobile-friendly face is imperative not only for search engine refers, but for the social media links that are helping to drive so much traffic to many media sites. These links from Facebook and Twitter feeds cannot penetrate even the best-made app. And now that tablets and smartphones have thoroughly unpredictable screen sizes it is simply cost-prohibitive to design so many custom experiences for each device.
Still, the negative effects of responsive design are also apparent even in the best of sites. The endless scroll is the most obvious problem for these sites. Yes, you can pour a full browser Web experience into a smartphone so that it formats neatly, but the cascade can be long. Time.com tries to deal with this by having a drop-down section navigator on top. But that requires an extra tap and works against the serendipity that a newsweekly excels at providing.
But what even this very good responsive design underscores to me is how “responsive” is a bit of a misnomer, in that the principle is responding to the device and the screen, not the user. In the end, it is less a matter of whether content is making the most of the device and more about whether the content is responding to user need and circumstance.
Let’s begin conceiving of “responsiveness” as a cry for personalization and localization. Publishers have started to meet the first superficial challenge of mobile as a need to adapt to screen size or “on-the-go-ness,” which is also belied by the amount of at-home and at-work use of mobile as an alternate screen. Responsive design needs to think about the next stage -- better understanding user needs, finally getting personalization right, and rethinking content as a tool and a service in time and space.