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I was thrilled to return to Austin, TX this spring for the South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Festival. The learning, debating and socializing makes the experience fulfilling and enlightening.

The hottest topic in web design and development was “Responsive” and “Adaptive.” Defining and properly communicating Responsive and Adaptive has been challenging. We use these definitions:

Responsive layout responds to different screen sizes via Fluid Grids, Flexible Media (images & video) and Media Queries

Adaptive layout adapts to specific device types, screen sizes and use type via Media Queries

I should state that “Responsive” is a technique used in “Adaptive” web design and development. Therefore a mix of Responsive and Adaptive may be an ideal approach to many projects.

Panels covered a vast range of topics including Adaptive Principles, Responsive Process and Responsive WordPress sites.

Common questions and complaints arose across these sessions, so I thought I’d address them for those not in attendance.

When should I use Responsive and Adaptive?
The common, yet unfulfilling answers was, “It depends.” Many factors must be considered including: project budgets, business goals, content strategy, user experience, technology constraints, brand standards and target devices.

What is the full Responsive Process?
Now that we understand what Responsive Design is, what is the workflow? One panelist shared his company’s process in detail. This somewhat traditional process is a great approach, but does not include a Prototype. We find having a working responsive prototype with actual content helps us and clients identify issues and opportunities much earlier in the process.

What screen should I design for first?
At SXSW I heard three different answers from panelists:

  • “Design for desktop and scale back”
  • “Design for mobile first”
  • “Design for them all simultaneously”

If industry leaders can’t decide on the approach where does that leave us? Perhaps the answer is again, “It depends.” Are you going fully Adaptive or a Responsive hybrid? Does the experience or content need to be vastly different on a phone?

Responsive Interactive Design is boring!
Many designers are frustrated with the new world of flexible layouts and modularized content. Dealing with small screens could make creatives feel like they are designing for the least common denominator. The consensus in Austin was that there needed to be a shift in perceptions to see this evolution as an opportunity. Accept touch interfaces as the future. Embrace progressive enhancement over graceful degradation. Utilize the extra “white space” in wide screens to pull content up or even add Easter eggs.

We live in an age of mobile devices and our content is displayed on myriad screen sizes and devices. And we can’t even fathom where our content will be displayed in the future. Adaptive principles allow your content to be future friendly, ubiquitous and flexible.

Image source: Brad Frost

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