Responsive design is not the answer

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Christopher Gutteridge (@cgutteridge) tweeted at 10:01 AM on Thu, Jun 27, 2013:

Over 100 people in the responsive design session at #iwmw13. Question "who's cynical about responsive design?" - no hands go up.

Universities tend to be a bit behind the curve when it comes to deploying new technologies, which is why responsive design is still so thin on the ground and celebrated when it does actually happen (just the same as other big organisations). But not being able to see the problems it gives you is a real worry.

Responsive design is the technical fix for pushing the same unstructured content to all devices regardless of capability, speed or screen size.

The harder problem (not that I'm saying sorting out design for multiple screens is easy!) is breaking that content down into separate, identifiable and referenceable chunks. This isn't only a CMS question, but an editor expertise and culture question. You can see why people go for responsive design instead.

At the University of Bath we have over 300 people with access to edit pages in our CMS. The vast majority of those pages are opaque HTML blobs, and the majority of those people only log in to the CMS irregularly, let alone have "web" in their job title.

If we can standardise the page types we have on our site, in the way that Government Digital Service have done with the content on gov.uk, then we stand a real chance of helping those editors in their daily jobs by making it clearer what the expectations of them are, as well as giving us much more flexibility in presenting the right content for the right people on the right device at the right time.

It doesn't look like most web teams, in any industry other than news production, are getting to grips with this - it's responsive or dedicated mobile sites all the way. This may of course be unfair, since adaptive content (which is the jargon name for what we're talking about) is like all the best technology in that it's invisible.

We'll be making a start on this next month when we ship a new site designed to highlight the quality research the University of Bath is doing. The site you'll be able to see won't initially reflect it, but underneath we'll be able to make template changes which completely alters the view of our information depending on how you're visiting.

This technique is extremely powerful, and by working on sites run by the central team first, we should be able to iron out any kinks and come up with solutions to any problems at minimal cost to the rest of our editor community.

I'm looking forward to it!

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