The flaws of responsive design: user context

Responsive design is a great solution for content publishers but can be very limiting in a number of ways. For the first post in a new series, we’re taking a look at how responsive design overlooks User Context. Sign up for automatic blog updates to follow the series.

On the surface, responsive design seems to be a match made in heaven for anyone hoping to deliver content across mobile and desktop devices simultaneously. Audiences are increasingly fragmented, and if you’re hoping to get your content in front of all those eyeballs you better make sure it’s legible, no matter what device they’re on. Otherwise you’re going to lose ‘em. Fast.

This is where responsive design shines. It is an elegant solution for a complex problem. You simply build your site once, and regardless of screen size, the visiting user will get a palatable experience. Columns will be re-shifted. Text bumped. Nav bars tweaked. And so on.

David Carson art, saying "Don't mistake legibility for communication." Really groovy text art.

But it all falls apart when you see just how different user needs are, based on what device they’re on, and where and when they’re reading. A tablet user isn’t looking for the same content experience they would be if they were on a desktop or a smartphone. And vice versa.

So why treat everyone the same, all the time?

Screen size is not enough

You might be thinking, “doesn’t responsive design cater to different user contexts?” And you’d be wrong. At its most basic level, responsive design caters specifically to screen size — not context — and there’s a huge difference. Go to any responsively designed site on your laptop and rearrange the browser to its skinniest width to see what I mean. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

What you just saw on your click-and-scroll laptop was exactly what any swipe-and-tap smartphone user would see if they came to it on their iPhone or Galaxy. All you’re doing is changing the screen size.

What we’ve discovered after two years of building tablet and smartphone content apps is that this approach is simply not enough. User context is so much more important than screen size.

User Context is infinitely more important than screen size

Different devices, different user needs

There are two key things to look at when working on a tablet and smartphone content strategy that, if executed thoughtfully, will increase your engagement in more ways than one.

  1. User context implied by device type
  2. User context implied by your content type

Simply by looking at device type, you can get a good idea of the situation in which your reader finds him or herself when reading your content.

For example, the typical tablet user is most likely reading your content during their own  “personal time”. It’s the morning read over breakfast or the evening read on the couch with a glass of chianti. It’s when the user has the most time to devote to reading and the highest probability of experimenting and interacting with not just your content, but also your ads and CTAs. The reader is looking for not just content, but an experience that does the thinking for them, guiding them from start to finish, like a book. The tablet reader also prefers a minimal set of “obvious” gesture-based navigation directions and, preferably, swiping right-to-left as they would a book or magazine.

On the second point, you can also get a better idea of what the user needs depending on what kind of content you produce. The general tendency is to assume all smartphone readers want the same thing, the smartphone site with uniform stacks of content with a title, and image and an arrow letting them know to click the article. The smartphone user is generally assumed to be on the go and needing immediate gratification with highlights and truncated content experiences.

But if you think about your content, or your brand, you should ask yourself “is that what your smartphone user is looking for?” You may be an up-to-the-minute news application which would imply your smartphone reader is most likely absorbing you in little-bits throughout the day. Perhaps they’re looking for specific things and don’t have much time while they’re on the bus on their way to work. But how does this change if you’re a longer-format content publication? Does it make sense that your smartphone reader is looking for immediate gratification even though everyone knows your articles are many pages long? Perhaps they simply don’t have a tablet, and are reading The Atlantic on their couch at home on their smartphone.

The implication here is that by not only assessing the reader’s device, but also your content and the reader’s intent when visiting you, you can create a much more engaging tablet & smartphone content experience.

Leaving money on the table

So what does this all mean? What’s the big deal?

The short answer is: you can get away with a one-size fits all approach to context design – cramming one website on many different screens, but you’re leaving money on the table.

Publishers and marketers are in the business of capturing attention, in order to sell that attention to advertisers or convert it to a sale. And the immediate risk of not tailoring the user experience to the user context is that users will be less engaged than they could be.

What this means is that the responsively designed site then needs to be tweaked and divided into separate applications to suit the context profile for each device. You’ll notice, for example, that your smartphone engagement goes up when you use paginated vertical swipe vs. your current constant vertical-scroll style. And then you’ll notice that your tablet readership goes up when you make your pages swipe from side to side, and that having more content on the page with variations in font-size and layout dramatically increases engagement.

So what started as an idea to simplify your life and avoid creating a series of new sites, ended up not being so simple.

All we are saying is that responsive design is a great solution. But it might not be the best one.

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