Responsive Web Considered Harmful

A history of web standards’ claim to “help our users” when they are actually putting them and developers in danger

Believe it or not, there was a time when all computer screens were the same size and building interfaces for all devices was an efficient task — typically needing one design and one implementation. Look around today and there are devices of all shapes and sizes, being used in and out of the office, and people are depending on these devices to accomplish all sorts of tasks while on the go. There is a rich, yet dangerous, history to this movement that claims to help users and bring the Web to all users

It is said that it was not until 2001 when the first website to adapt to the size of the browser, Audi.com, launched. It was called “responsive web design” because it was designed to respond to the changing screen sizes being introduced to the Web at that time.

Aside: This was the same year the first smartphone, the Apple iPhone, was introduced. According to the Web, its much smaller screen caused issues when trying to render regular desktop-shaped sites in 2001 before the Audi release (see image to the left). Although no one has said this partnership between Apple and the car company foreshadowed Apples current efforts to bring self-driving cards to the consumer market, it could be said.

The great thing about “responsive web development” — besides it being more polished and making more sense semantically and linguistically than the less realistic “progressive enhancement” and “graceful degradation” philosophies— was that browser vendors were quick to adopt standards which provided developers with the tools to ensure all of their content could be seen regardless of screen size. While browser vendors and their web standards-writing counterparts were, and continue to be, able to control how developers could build responsively, they could never quite control how developers could build responsibly.

Today, there are approximately 6.8 billion phone screens of different sizes that developers and designers are responsible for building the Web for. That also means 6.8 billion people walking around with phones and doing tasks that take their attention.

This leaves us with a real-life landscape of danger, full of billions of people walking around and not paying attention because they are on these smaller devices. And not only that, the amount of time it takes to build for different screens and debug on different devices is exponentially increasing the destruction of proper work/life balance for web developers. This, too, is dangerous as it affects their health — and the extra income from overtime software developers are notorious for earning is normally used to purchase more devices. It’s a dangerous slope and a slippery cycle.

studies show that 3 out of 5 teens walk in the opposite direction of 2 out 5 teens while on their smart devices

What can the people who drive business decisions on the Web — designers, product owners, scrum popes — do to ensure safety on the web and in the workplace? In order to provide an earned work-life balance to web developers, as well as a safe space for people out and about, we need to stop building responsive web pages ASAP as possible.

In order to provide an earned work-life balance to web developers, as well as a safe space for pedestrians, we need to stop building responsive web pages ASAP as possible.

This is an intense stance to take, but it is definitely technologically feasible, especially with the advent of JavaScript and a new fork of CSS called Flexbox. These are languages used to build the Web and allow developers to build one page that works best on the desktop but can still work on smaller devices in the case of emergencies. JavaScript was created nearly a decade before the 2001 Audi.com responsive site launch but did not gain traction until the later naughts thanks to libraries like Node, NPM, and package managers, which launched a vivrant new-wave movement of the language.

What many people do not realize, though, is that the inventor of JavaScript, Brandan Eich, silently invented responsive web YEARS before Audi did. And it was SAFE. His homepage was obviously designed for the desktop and kind of looked readable on small devices, but not enough for anyone to want to go to the site.

Desktop version of Brandon’s Web World
Smaller screen size of Brandon’s Web World
Proof of Brandon Eich’s progressive responsive work well before Audi in 2001

This meant the designers and developers of his page only needed to work on one design and implementation (no extra work or overtime) and there was a much smaller chance of anyone on their phones trying to walk or drive while looking at the homepage. And since this happened so many years ago, we know we have the technology to follow this obviously safe pattern. With the insurance of safety and low development/design costs, it is no wonder we have seen continued success from Netscape even today.

Ending responsive web affects our users, our employees, our finances, literally everything that has been touched in the current digital revolution. And sometimes evolution requires devolution — or reverting back to previous practices that turn out to actually work better than today’s disruptions. It is time to look up from our screens and experience life. Safe life. Away from the screen. Safely.


Jenn Schiffer is a desktop-only web applications engineer who wants everyone to look up but not at her.