Responsive mobile design

August 30th, 2011

In his seminal article published in May 2010 Ethan Marcotte coined the term “responsive web design“, paving a way for a unified approach to designing web sites that adapt to the current media context:

Rather than tailoring disconnected designs to each of an ever-increasing number of web devices, we can treat them as facets of the same experience. We can design for an optimal viewing experience, but embed standards-based technologies into our designs to make them not only more flexible, but more adaptive to the media that renders them. In short, we need to practice responsive web design.

Ethan’s research into crafting browsing experiences that scale from large desktop environments down to tablets, netbooks and small mobile phones has culminated in the “Responsive web design” book published in June 2011. The original article and the book have prompted forward-thinking web designers to reevaluate their work flows. Trent Walton summarizes his experience working on responsive projects:

Web designers will have to look beyond the layout in front of them to envision how its elements will reflow & lockup at various widths while maintaining form & hierarchy. Media queries can be used to do more than patch broken layouts: with proper planning, we can begin to choreograph content proportional to screen size, serving the best possible experience at any width. […]

In my mind, it’s best to build something that works on any possible width or device instead of something that works on all current widths and devices.

This underlines a major shift into approaching the web design. Instead of creating a number of rigid grids heavily optimized to a number of predefined screen sizes, Trent emphasizes the importance of fluid rearrangement of content that maintains the overall structure but adapts the presentation to a wide range of media contexts. Instead of forcing the user into the “best presentation” mode, the content reflows based on the current user preference, from full-size desktop browsing to smaller netbook screens to even smaller handheld devices. Mark Boulton drives this point even more:

How should we do it on the web? Remember the goal is connectedness and this feeling of belonging. We do that by defining the constraint from your content. The constraint could be derived from an advertising unit, or from a thumbnail image from tons of legacy content. Whatever it is, start there. Don’t start from an imaginary page. […]

Embrace the fluidity of the web. Design layouts and systems that can cope to whatever environment they may find themselves in. But the only way we can do any of this is to shed ways of thinking that have been shackles around our necks. They’re holding us back.

The ever-evolving landscape of mobile devices keeps on producing an almost continuous spectrum of screen sizes, resolutions and ratios with increasingly more powerful computing and networking capabilities. Highlighting the long gone days of content dumbed down for small screens, Jeremy Keith notes:

More and more people are using mobile devices as a primary means of accessing the web. The number is already huge and it’s increasing every day. I don’t think they’re all using their devices just to look up the opening times of restaurants. They are looking for the same breadth and richness of experience that they’ve come to expect from the web on other devices.

Hence the frustration with mobile-optimised sites that remove content that’s available on the desktop-optimised version.

Rather than creating one site for an imaginary desktop user and another for an imaginary mobile user, we need to think about publishing content that people want while adapting the display of that content according to the abilities of the person’s device.

Designing native mobile experiences is undergoing a similar transformation, especially for the Android platform. A continuous stream of new devices coming to the market, especially in the 7″-10″ range presents a challenge to developers that create applications with hierarchical information content. On one hand, the single-window presentation mode seemingly removes the need to explicitly rearrange content on the fly – as opposed to the context of a multi-window desktop environment. On the other hand, even in this mode you need to properly handle device orientation change, especially on devices with “unusual” screen ratios that necessitate content reflow. And of course, if you go beyond the single device, you would want to support a variety of screen sizes, from 4″ phones to the 7″-10″ tablet range.

The same arguments put forth in favor of content-driven design that adapts to the wide range of media context are relevant for the native mobile design. Some applications will naturally “expand” to fill a larger screen; these would be mainly canvas-driven applications such as map viewers, image editors or video streamers. But applications presenting hierarchical (and mainly text-based) content require the application designers and developers to think in terms of a fluid content presentation. A single-column presentation optimized for smaller phone screens may look sparse and unbalanced viewed on a larger tablet screen, especially in landscape mode. Navigating information hierarchy that lends itself to master-details relations may require separate screens on smaller devices, but may be presented in a split mode on larger ones.

Android resource system has provided support for multiple screens and densities, allowing the developers to optimize user experience for different screen configurations. To that end, the screen configurations have been mapped along two separate buckets:

  • The physical size of the screen – small, normal, large, xlarge. Each bucket is a continuous range, with some overlap between the buckets.
  • The density, or how many pixels appear within a constant physical area of the display – ldpi, mdpi, hdpi, xhdpi. Each bucket is a continuous range as well, with some overlap between the buckets.

Combining multiple configuration qualifiers has allowed Android developers to provide layouts optimized for the specific screen configurations, in much the same way as CSS3 media queries enable the ever more powerful responsive web design. If you take a closer look at the range of qualifiers supported in CSS 3 and at the examples of responsive web design, you will see that the main difference is in defining the “boundaries” between the different configurations. Instead of a set of predefined screen size buckets, the main CSS3 qualifiers are width, height, device-width and device-height with optional min and max prefixes. The values themselves are numeric in units of either CSS pixels (corresponding to Android dip, or device-independent pixels) or ems (corresponding to Android sp, or scale-independent pixels that respect the user’s font size preference).

As we’re seeing a wider variety of screen sizes and shapes for Android devices, we’ve also seen that the developers need a more refined system for adjusting the content presentation. Introducing the new resource selectors, Android framework guru Dianne Hackborn writes:

Based on developers’ experience so far, we’re not convinced that this limited set of screen-size buckets gives developers everything they need in adapting to the increasing variety of Android-device shapes and sizes. The primary problem is that the borders between the buckets may not always correspond to either devices available to consumers or to the particular needs of apps.

Android 3.2 adds support for three new resource selectors:

  • width dp: the current width available for application layout in “dp” units; changes when the screen switches orientation between landscape and portrait.
  • height dp: the current height available for application layout in “dp” units; also changes when the screen switches orientation.
  • smallest width dp: the smallest width available for application layout in “dp” units; this is the smallest width dp that you will ever encounter in any rotation of the display.

Unlike the existing size buckets, these selectors start from the content and not from the context. Instead of mapping your content presentation into the buckets of physical screen sizes or densities, you start by defining the main building blocks that represent your content and mapping those to different presentation strategies. Each strategy will arrange the content blocks based on their importance and require certain minimum width for a balanced arrangement. Then, you can use the new resource selectors to provide implementation for each presentation strategy.

As with the CSS3 queries, you have finer control over the bucket boundaries and the content presentation within each bucket. Depending on the overall information hierarchy depth and density for your specific domain you will decide when the content presentation transitions between the different strategies. So for example, if you’re writing an email reader, you can use the width dp selector to switch between single-pane and double-pane mode at, say, 600dp. Devices at the bottom “edge” of the large bucket will display a single-pane mode in portrait and double-pane mode in landscape.

This is both simple and powerful. Instead of thinking about all possible combinations of physical sizes and densities, you go back to the device-independent units. The content of your application domain drives the decision on how much device-independent real estate you need for each presentation mode, and the framework switches between the different modes depending on the physical characteristics of the device and current orientation. Each new territory needs best practices. Stay tuned for more.