Responsive Design and the State of the Web
In the past 12 years, there have been several milestones that have helped to define the Web as we know it today. Whether it was the onset of standards compliant coding practices, the since forgotten “Web 2.0”, or the rapid growth of social media, there has not been any change that has had as much impact as the recent rapid adoption of the mobile Web.
Statistics are abundant, and there is no denying that mobile devices are rapidly becoming the primary group of devices accessing the Internet.
Today’s Web users are users of many devices and operating systems. We can no longer predict what those are with much certainty. We can no longer know that our target audience uses one of two or three Web browsers at absolute screen sizes.
Today our websites are being viewed on large computer monitors, small laptop screens, tablets and smart-phones of various sizes, televisions, and whatever else is coming down the technology pipeline.
When we use the word “mobile” today, we are really talking about a lot of (also unpredictable) use cases. A few years ago when we said “mobile website,” we were talking about something that was designed for people on the go with a phone in their hand trying to look up a flight or find an ATM machine.
We were talking about an interface mostly consisting of large navigation buttons that ultimately drilled you down to some content, but much of the time sent you back to the “full site” because the trimmed down mobile site did not have all the same content or features as the main website.
Today, mobile users are simply Web users. They are using their multiple devices in many different contexts and locations to access the websites they know and use frequently. At home, at work, on the couch, at their desk, on a trip or in their backyard.
Users expect to be able to access your website’s content with whatever device they have, whenever they want, wherever they are and they hope for all of your content within a consistent presentation in all cases. Most credit union websites do not meet these user demands.
These use cases and multiple devices are what define the next credit union website, because your users are not using consistent technology in only a few scenarios to interact with you.
Additionally, maintaining multiple websites for multiple platforms is unrealistic, and based on the typical resources available is not the appropriate solution for credit unions.
Embracing the Mobile Web with One Site
We’ve learned a lot over the past few years as tablets and smartphone usage has skyrocketed. We’ve learned the wrong way to reach mobile users, and we’ve discovered the right ways.
The first wave of mobile solutions for the Web typically created a mobile specific website with a subset of content from the main site and redirected users to that mobile site through device detection.
What we’ve learned is that does not work well. It does not work because the first thing we do when implementing a mobile specific site is we make assumptions about what our site visitors want to see and do when they are using specific devices.
For a credit union, the needs of users don’t change drastically from one device to the next. Site users still want product and rate information on their phone, they still want to find an ATM on their desktop.
What changes is not the type of content being sought, but the viewing experience. If we can assume our users will only need product, location and contact information on their mobile device, why is any other information important for the desktop user?
Instead of segregating users, why not trim down our content and functions to the bare core and present them in an extremely digestible manner for everyone, regardless of their device?
Responding to Our Users’ Demands
The right way to reach our mobile users became blatantly obvious with the introduction of Responsive Web Design. Simply put, responsive design allows us to create one interface design that adapts to multiple screen sizes.
The core of this method is accomplished using CSS Media Queries in conjunction with fluid, grid-based layouts. Responsive Web Design is the ticket to a Web presence that relies on one website with one content base to reach users on all devices. With it, there is no need to maintain multiple Web designs with two or three sets of content.
Responsive gives us a wonderful solution for a single website layout that changes based on the screen it’s being viewed on, but there are many other aspects to mobile optimized websites.
In addition to screen size, we place a lot of emphasis on site performance, dynamic image resizing (so we don’t send large images to small screens), navigation models, and the most crucial element for credit union staff... content strategy.
What is Content Strategy?
In its simplest form, content strategy is having some kind of structure around how you create, edit, publish and present content as an organization.
On typical websites of the past (especially credit union websites) content strategy was mostly based on figuring out what you had to say about your products and services and how many pages you needed to drop all the text and images on.
As long as the design of the site looked good and there was a good navigation model and site architecture, all the pages were going to look good and serve their purpose, so we were safe.
Now add designing for mobile with Responsive Web Design to that equation, and content strategy and site architecture become much more important.
Why? Because the more consistent we are about how we present our content to our users, the more likely we are to engage them on multiple platforms. Consistency requires structure, and structure is created through a content strategy.
Now that we are allowing ourselves to be flexible and responsive to our audience, we ideally are doing so via an online presentation that employs a segregated content infrastructure.
What this means is that each piece of our content is required to not only be independent and very well organized, but flexible, concise and with limited formatting upon publishing.
This not only has usability and search engine optimization benefits, but it allows us to strictly define a consistent presentation for a wide range of screen sizes and audiences without requiring the content authors to have to worry about design style, layout, alignment, type formatting or static data entry.
In fact, we can’t allow the content authors to have to worry about any presentation beyond simple formatting because if we do, we are fighting with the presentation framework we have implemented to provide consistency among our own variations.
Consistency is the most valuable aspect of presentation on a website. Finally we are moving to a Web that requires consistency, but it also opens up the possibilities for being more flexible than ever before.
The flexibility necessary to accommodate any user is what defines the next credit union website. This can be achieved by implementing a website that uses Responsive Web Design combined with mobile optimization methods and a strong content strategy.
The truth is that we don’t know what the next thing to shape the Web will be, but we do know that the current environment is being driven by users of many varied devices.
Catering to those users should be done with one website that has one set of content. The rest should be left up to the implementation of your credit union’s next website.