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.