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User control and responsive design

The BBC have recently re-launched their TV channel homepages with new responsive designs. A key benefit is that these pages automatically adapt to the device they’re being viewed on in terms of visual design, layout and content, be it a mobile phone, tablet computer, or otherwise.

For reasons explained in the BBC’s launch blog post, the designers have opted for a very similar experience across all devices, rather than responding to devices with larger screens by serving more sophisticated functions. There are comments on this post that express frustration at the loss of some of the features of the old site and it appears that some users require greater control of the page information than what the current responsive pages provide.

There’s no such thing as ‘this is mobile content and this is not’ #

It seems that the BBC have done extensive research in order to get the balance right for the majority of their users, but the presence of these negative comments highlights that there are several real-world cases where different people will use different sized devices for a variety of reasons.

In a recent blog post, Mobile UX author Josh Clark said: “we use our phones for everything now; there’s no such thing as ‘this is mobile content, and this is not.’” I agree and would like to refine this statement by saying that some people use their phones for everything and others do not. Some people use their phones to conduct complex tasks on certain websites and simple tasks on others. Like Josh, I believe that there are differing mobile contexts that cannot be determined and designed for by using screen size and device profiles alone.

In many cases, users crave the control and granularity of a ‘desktop’ experience on mobile devices. It is important for the website to understand what the user’s real-world context is, but not to dictate it. User research will be able to support the creation of some helpful default settings for the site, but a presumed use case should not be enforced in cases where more than one is clearly available.

The issue that we’re dealing with now is finding the best way to ascertain the use case. We are already seeing real world data such as geolocation in the phone playing a bigger role in prioritising content more intelligently. Unfortunately, this still acts as a fairly blunt instrument when it comes to establishing what the user does at each location. Currently, it is the website’s responsibility to learn and remember the context based on clues the user gives them.

The role of responsive design #

So how does responsive design fit in to all of this? For simpler interactions, such as the BBC TV channel pages, using responsive design techniques to re-format content will often suffice, but for more complex web applications, collecting user preferences goes a long way to making future usage effortless, and responsive design facilitates the easy collection of these. The role of responsive design is largely focused around usability. In the same way that the use of formatting-agnostic HTML provides more diverse ways of consuming the content (screen readers for example), responsive web design will bring a better, unified web to a wider range of media. It’s a natural progression for the web.

One pitfall of collecting the user’s preferences is the potentially large initial outlay of effort from them, since opening up several configuration choices will not necessarily result in a better experience. The trick here is to offer just the right amount of choice: Studies on decision making show that people get along better with fewer options than they say they want. This means that optional user controls must be as unobtrusive and automatic as possible to deflect unnecessary work from the user.

Considerations for designing responsive websites or apps #

For me, to manage a multi-platform web experience, the objective isn’t to design a streamlined mobile site and a feature rich desktop site, but to explore how different people are trying to fit each individual site into their lives and how to present configuration choices to them if appropriate.

So, to summarise, when designing responsive websites or apps:

Once an interesting website or useful web app becomes more mindful of how to respond to the user’s real world context in a meaningful way, it will be more likely secure an easy-to-access place on a user’s home screen. Doing this brings the user closer to the brand to which the site belongs, with highly increased potential to create customer loyalty.