This past weekend, on May 3rd, I had the pleasure of joining a collection of really smart people on stage at Mobile Camp Chicago. It was a full day of discussing what the expansion in device usage over the past few years means for our industry. I heard a bunch of great talks and had even more great conversations. If you get a chance to attend one of the shows that Chicago Camps puts on I could not recommend it enough. The events are some of the most affordable around and full of some of the best speakers I've seen.
For my talk, Mobile First Responsive Design?, I posed this industry best practice as a question to the audience. We don't usually see this technique posed as a question. It's accepted that if you're building responsively, Mobile First is the way to go. When I teach responsive design to students, I pose a similar question. I show them a website in both a narrow view and a wide view and I ask, "Where would you start if you were building this site?" About 2/3 of the class typically raises their hand for the narrow view, with the rest raising their hand for the wide view (and occasionally a few students remind me that they are paying for me to give them the answer). I then ask the class "Why?". Why did they make the choice they did? There's a bit of conversation around their reasoning, and then I flip the example. I show the same site, but with the narrow layout in the wide viewport, and the wide layout in the narrow viewport. I follow with another question. "Which of these layouts is broken less?" To me, this is a good visual for students grasping with learning responsive techniques. Browsers that don't support media queries will get the layout you start with. Which layout is better out of context? The narrow view, yes? That settles the question of where to begin, mobile first, right?
Eventually, a student in one of my classes raised her hand. She said (paraphrased), "I've been trying to learn responsive design on my own and have tackled a few projects. I have to start big, though, or else I have a hard time wrapping my head around what's happening. Does that mean I'm doing it wrong?" That last bit is what stuck with me. In no way was she doing anything wrong. She was learning new techniques on her own. She was building sites that responded to whatever environment they were viewed in. She was doing everything right and the phrasing of her question, the implication that this was wrong (and almost shameful) stuck with me. It's my job to encourage and what I thought was an illustration of best practices was a moment of discouragement. We talked about this as a group as my thinking expanded right in front of the class and we came to a different way of thinking about the problem: Start where you're standing.
Best practices are great because they are repeatable processes. As designers and developers, we like repeatable processes. They allow us to think less about the process and more about the problems we are trying to solve. However, a repeatable process is like a racetrack that never moves. We run around and around and around, but the starting line and finish line are always the same. However, real-world projects are not the same size. They aren't the same shape or length or even in the same place. They don't have the same starting and finish lines and while a best practice can guide us on the right path, it shouldn't be the thing that's creating the path. To start where you're standing simply asks you, as the builder, to look at what information you have before you determine where you'll start building your front end. This includes analytics, user research, existing designs and code, budgetary constraints and anything else you happen to know about the project before you write your first line of HTML. Doing it right means optimizing the process so that the person you're building your site for gets the most value for the least amount of effort. If that means starting with a wide view first in your breakpoint system, then you are "doing it wrong" if you start small.
Regardless of where your project's starting point is, Mobile First is still a best practice. It's important for us to understand what makes it a best practice so that regardless of where we start we are able to make better choices as we build out our sites. Back in 2009 Luke W. wrote a blog post that would go on to inspire talks at conferences and a book on the topic, Mobile First. In the post, he made three key arguments as to the benefits of a mobile first approach to responsive design.
Mobile Is Exploding
Back in 2009, small screens were a new frontier for web designers. The iOS and Android explosion meant that people were trying to view our sites in the palm of their hands and the experience was failing them. Designers needed to catch up and a 960 grid wasn't going to do it. At the time it was the message we needed to hear. Focus on the small screen and build out from there. It's been 5 years and we've done a good job, as an industry, of solving the small screen problem. In doing so, we've let the large screen slip by us. A List Apart recently published Surveying the Big Screen where the do a great job of pointing this out (and rightly call out some work that I was tasked with creating). As we focused on small screens the other end of the screen size divide continued to grow. There are desktop machines that have screens pushing 3000 pixels wide. I will regularly browse websites on my television from 15 feet across the room. I've built internal applications that are regularly used on projectors in a room of 10+ people. Mobile exploded and the dust is settling. In 2014 viewports are exploding in all directions and our approach should account for that.
Mobile Forces You To Focus
Luke sums this up perfectly:
Mobile devices require software development teams to focus on only the most important data and actions in an application. There simply isn't room in a 320 by 480 pixel screen for extraneous, unnecessary elements. You have to prioritize.
I couldn't agree more. Once again, in 2009, this was what we needed to hear. As an industry we kept cramming as much as we could onto the page because we had the room to do it. We learned to focus our functionality to specific purpose and find the intersection of audience and business needs in a way that worked to make everyone involved with the website happy. But how is focus a device problem? Regardless of where we are beginning in our build process we should focus on the most important data and actions. That is our job as designers, not an effect of designing for small screens. In 2014, doing our jobs requires us to focus.
Mobile Extends Your Capabilities
This was a game changer. With computers in our pockets we suddenly had a completely new set of functionality we could roll into our websites. Like a kid in a candy store we were faced with endless options: Touch screens and gestures, location services, push notifications and more. These new capabilities could change the way our sites worked and needed to be considered early in the process, not as an afterthought. That was then. In 2014, this functionality is coming to the large screen. Windows 8 has enabled touch on large screens. Modern browsers have caught up on the feature front as well. The capabilities that we associated with smart phones is no longer isolated to our pockets and can become a part of our web sites across all devices.
Mobile Content First
Today Mobile First is an antiquated practice. Let's design for "Content First." In doing so we will take a device agnostic approach. Adam McCrimmon gave a talk earlier in the day called "Deviceism." In it, he talked about his response to "People won't do that on mobile." In 45 minutes he talked us through conversations, scenarios and data around this question and summed it up with 5 simple words: Context Changes. Intent Does Not. People are going to do what they want to do with the closest screen that lets them do it. The data backs this up. If we are still thinking about responsive design as a device-centric problem, then we're not solving our actual problem, which is allowing our site users to accomplish what they're there to do regardless of the screen they're using. Taking a content first approach to your responsive design allows you to forget about devices and focus squarely on this problem.
Regardless of where you start, begin with a sketch. You know where you're starting at, but unless you know where you're going to wind up, the steps in between become much harder to work through. In putting Sharpie to paper we can begin to answer some of those lingering interaction questions and ensure that the focus is on data and action.
With your roadmap laid out, get your code into the browser. It doesn't have to be a pixel perfect recreation of the full design, just a basic scaffold, but get it there. Load it up and see how it lives and breathes in the site's natural environment. Then shake things up a bit. Start resizing your browser. When things don't look right you've got your first breakpoint. It's right in the name. A breakpoint is the point at which your layout breaks. Fix it.
Finally, don't forget that the responsive journey is not a one-way street. Think through and evaluate your design in both directions.
Best Practice ≠ Dogma
We have a bad habit in our industry of jumping head first into embracing newer, better best practices. In doing so, we tend to create a world that is black and white, and the lack of gray hues scare me.
Let's go back to the girl that was in my class who spoke up as I was teaching a mobile first approach. My lesson was black and white. Her reality didn't align with what was "right", and she got worried. Best practices are simply a good starting point. Instead of unquestioningly jumping into them face first, step back, evaluate them to find out what makes them better, and apply those lessons in the most appropriate way for the projects that you are working on. Share that knowledge and encourage the team around you and this industry will continue to grow faster than we've ever seen.