The Grommet team recently connected with designer and author Ethan Marcotte to talk about responsive design trends for 2016. He coined the term “responsive web design” back in 2010 to describe a new way of designing for the ever-changing Web. We took the opportunity to ask Ethan a few questions on how he got started and where he sees responsive web design going in 2016. Enjoy the insights and comment below with any additional questions for Ethan.
G: For our audience, it would be great to know a little bit about you, how you became the face of Responsive Web Design (RWD), started writing for A Book Apart, and what you’ve learned as the web continues to change?
E: Sure! I’m an independent designer based in Boston, and first coined the term “responsive web design” in a 2010 conference talk. From there, it turned into an article, and then, a year later, a little yellow book. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting “responsive design” to last much longer than the original article—I’m still shocked, humbled, and excited by how many people have embraced the approach.
And as they have, the discussion about responsive design has gotten much broader and nuanced. It’s embraced issues of design process, of performance, of truly device-agnostic design—heck, even responsive-friendly advertising has entered the fray. Personally, I think it’s an incredibly exciting time to be a responsive designer; I can’t wait to see what happens next.
G: Is there any reason why a UX developer on the web (even in the Enterprise) wouldn’t want to embrace a responsive web experience? And to take that a step further mobile-first?
E: A colleague of mine once wrote that the web is “responsive by default”: in other words, a plain, unstyled web page is natively accessible to every screen and device on the planet. (Heck, you can even try this on the very first web page).
That’s not to say that a responsive approach is the answer for every digital project. But it’s an incredibly effective (and affordable) way to design for the Web—and by extension, for all the myriad devices, screens, and contexts that access it.
But to do responsive design right, it needs to be paired with a “mobile first” mindset. Our audiences—even in Enterprise—are predominantly mobile, making it critical to use those small screens as our starting point. And this is something we’ve heard time and again on our podcast about responsive design: everyone from Virgin America to corporate intranetshas found that starting with mobile enriches the responsive result. (It makes non-mobile users happier, too.)
G: With both web and native experiences having very similar but different approaches to responsive design, is there any advice you would give designers and developers that are trying to work across platforms?
E: Speaking from my practice, I’ve found it’s best to avoid emulating “native” interfaces on the web. After all, what does “native” mean when your users encounter your UI on countless combinations of browsers and operating systems?
Instead, try to establish a brand-appropriate aesthetic, and have conversations about how it’ll evolve across different mediums. The BBC’s Global Experience Language is a wonderful example of designing a set of platform-agnostic interface guidelines, put to good use on the new responsive experience for BBC News.
G: You’re pretty prolific, with podcasts, workshops, books, writings on the web, talks, and more, what keeps you driven to do it all and what helps you balance it all?
E: In short, I’ve found that it’s incredibly energizing to work on challenging projects with good, smart, humane people. And I’ve been incredibly fortunate on that front.
Over the past year, Erin Kissane edited my latest book and Karen McGrane and I continued collaborating on our podcast and workshops I worked with some friends and colleagues ona recent redesign of The Toast.
G: You’ve no doubt worked within organizations that have many different people delivering experiences that are trying to answer the customer’s needs. With large companies in specific, how do you coalesce the disparate ideas around what tool and process is right for job?
E: I’ve always found the tools are secondary to the design process. There’s a line I loved from our Virgin America interview:
“If you can get something that you can put in a person’s hand and get feedback, that’s the goal. However you get there is how you get there.”
Emphasis mine, but I think it’s true: there’s no singular standard for prototyping, or even a “best” responsive design process. Having a conversation with stakeholders about goals, vision, and broad design objectives will help determine the details, and establish the quickest path to building a prototype.
G: Do you consider yourself a developer, a designer, product creator, all, or something altogether different? Does it matter?
E: Not to me, personally—not really. I love visual design as much as I do front-end development; I thoroughly enjoy writing (well, mostly), consulting, and product design in equal measure.
Thanks to Ethan for the time and stay tuned to this blog for more interviews with influencers in responsive design. To read more about Grommet and our mobile design philosophy check out this page.