Posted by: structureofnews | September 21, 2011

One Size Fits…

The Boston Globe unveiled a new site about a week ago that has designers – and probably not a few editors and publishers as well – buzzing.   The site features ‘responsive design‘ – which in layman’s terms means it dynamically adapts to the size and capabilities of the screen it’s being viewed on.  Check it out.  Open the site on your browser and resize the window.  Try it on your phone.  It’s pretty cool.

But beyond cool – and a vast improvement on the current online reading experience – responsive design has lots of other value too.  For resource-tight news organizations faced with growing developer bills as ever-more platforms proliferate, it’s a potential godsend.  iPads, iPhones, Android phones, Blackberries… customizing layout and design for each adds up pretty quickly.  The allure of responsive design is that it simplifies that process, cutting costs and letting news organizations focus instead on content.  As Treesaver, a design firm that also promotes responsive design, notes on its site: “Create once, publish everywhere.”

Sounds great – and there’s certainly a lot to recommend the technology, not least the fact that publishers can get better laid-out and better designed content out to many more platforms much more quickly.  (Apparently the Boston Globe site even works on a Nintendo DS!) Too many news organizations have ugly or crammed sites for mobile devices, and this promises to improve those reading experiences quickly.

But it’s important to remember that a nice display isn’t all that matters; it’s understanding audiences and their needs at various times of the day, on various devices, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of each type of platform.  The danger otherwise is to fall into the “platform-agnostic“‘ trap, where the emphasis is purely on making content without regard to on what audiences might do with it, or how each media can best showcase specific types of content.

For example, newspaper designer Mario Garcia has suggested different “editions” of a newspaper’s iPad app – one for the morning, when readers might want a quick update, one at lunchtime, where they may be more interested in a visually-rich photo-driven experience, and yet another in the evening when people have more time to read.  Whether those categories are exactly the right ones or not, it’s certainly true that people approach information very differently when they’re on different devices, and when they’re at different points in their day.

How important are quick updates to someone on the move with their Blackberry vs. video to a late-night browser on an iPad?  How reasonable is it to expect someone to dive into a database visualization on a phone vs. on a desktop?  Each platform performs different functions at different times in the day.

That said, you can’t customize down to every customer and every possible use they might have – no one has that kind of resources.  (And, as we discussed with Mario when I was at the South China Morning Post, someone’s lunchtime edition in Hong Kong would be another reader’s midnight experience in New York.)  Which points, again, to the importance of focus – you need a clear idea of your audience, its needs and its habits.

Being able to get a well laid-out site to them on multiple platforms is great – but understanding what they want is just as important.


  1. Reg,

    The Globe did a good job on its new design. What’s also evident is that, if you look under the hood at the codebase, there was a lot of attention paid to the tedious details for making the thing bomb proof. You get a sense that things might fail in certain browsers, javascript turned off for example, but are able to fail gracefully.

    Something else to consider is that although responsive design is most often looked at as a means of sizing down to smaller screen resolution, it also allows for some interesting capabilities when sizing up. Things such as multi-column copy blocks for better layout and line-length readability. Here’s an example:

    Mario Garcia has a valid point about the concept of editions, but at least a partial solution to the out-of-area time base can be gotten around with conditionals based on the user’s IP address as a locale identifier. On the other hand, does it matter? If someone in Denver decides to read the Gulf News in Dubai, it’s going to be fairly obvious that there’s a difference in time zones.

    A more tricky problem, at least it seems to me, is what Gawker Media ran into when it did it’s last redesign. At that time, Nick Denton noted that he wanted to get away from strict adherence to the weblog reverse-chronology format, and a really important story should maintain prominence instead of being buried in the queue. But if you do that, you create another issue in the sense of what needs to trigger the replacement for the prominent story.


    • Perry, thanks – good thoughts and interesting link. Mario’s point isn’t so much that there needs to be different editions for different times of the day, but more that people do have different information needs based on time, location, and type of device (leaving aside individuality as well, of course). Obviously trying to customize everyone’s reading experience isn’t possible – at least right now. But one assumes that readers using a tablet at night have different types of news needs from someone reading on a mobile at mid-morning, and that it’s more than a display issue to get them what they need – it’s more separate flows of content for two types of devices. Having said that, responsive design is clearly a huge step forward in being able to deliver that content, whatever it turns out to be. Best, Reg

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