Take Responsive Design Beyond the (Fluid) Grid

We’ve given you a look at some best practices for responsive design, but beyond the nuts and bolts of @media queries and flexible grids, there is something more subtle, and more important, at work behind the moniker responsive design.

Good design has always been about not just putting content first, but making it easy to read that content — give people what they’re looking for or they will go elsewhere.

It sounds rather basic, but if good, content-driven design were actually common on the web, then we wouldn’t need tools like Readability, Safari’s Reader or Instapaper, which are all services that strip out superflous distractions and give people what they want — content. If you’ve read through our guide to designing for readability first, hopefully you’re already streamlining your website and focusing on the content rather than sidebar, ads and other distractions. Responsive design picks up where that idea leaves off.

The cornerstone of any responsive design is a flexible grid system that adapts to different screen sizes, but that’s really the least interesting aspect once you master it. In the larger sense, responsive design is not about fluid grids, it’s about determining the constraints of the reader’s screen and how those constraints change the way your site needs to display. It’s about shifting your content based on the screen size of your reader and ensuring that your visitors have the best experience regardless of what device they might use.

In other words, responsive design is about making sure that the reading device being used doesn’t matter. Screen size is the obvious place to start. The constraints of small screens dictate some design choices, for example a single column of content, and means putting the primary content at the top of the page. It also mean ensuring your typography looks good. For example, the typical desktop browser font sizes of 14-16px often feel too small on an iPad.

But screen size isn’t the only thing to bear in mind when you’re building your site. Don’t ignore other aspects of today’s myriad mobile devices, like touch-based interfaces, access to GPS data or screen resolution. For example, your site might have a nice flexible grid, but if half your links require a hover state to be noticed, your site is no more “responsive” for a touch screen user than the average archived Geocities page. Also consider the impact of transitions and animations which can help guide users and create a greater feeling of responsiveness.

Different devices also have different built-in tools. Test for things like geolocation support using Modernizer and if the device supports it, use it. For example, a location-based form that works well on your desktop site might be better served by using the location data automatically on a mobile site.

In the end responsive design is not just about the size of the screen, it’s about how your arrange you information to give people what they want. Every site is different and you if simply jump on the flexible grid bandwagon without giving proper thought to your unique content, you’re not going to have an effective website.

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