Responsive design: it’s an ethos, not simply a technique

murraygm
murraygm
Nov 13, 2014 · 8 min read

For the last 6 years, I’ve been involved in designing and guiding the UX for various types of business data & analysis software. Most recently this has been with Qlik for their next generation BI software, Qlik Sense. From the outset of the project we took the stance that there was more to data visualisation than perfect, pretty charts. The artefacts created with our software need to be compelling, but above all they need to be accessible and useful. People should be able to access what they need, no matter where they are or what device they have. As part of delivering against that challenge we set ‘responsive’ as one of our early design principles. Here’s why…

Unicorn tears

This ‘requirement’ for fidelity was based on the mass production ideal of a perfect reproduction — the printed edition. If it wasn’t a perfect reproduction it must be a ‘fake’ and not to be trusted — ‘look how it differs from the original’. But that makes no sense in a digital world where there is no original artefact to speak of, and definitely not one you can simply look at to check. What you see is awakened in the moment of viewing and all the potential variants that are part of the context which frames that moment. This attempt at a perfect reproduction is the result of concentrating on the artefact instead of the people who are using or experiencing it. In other words, simply looking at things from the wrong direction.

Being artefact centric doesn’t help enough people; it just creates a nice artefact. All well and good if you’re creating an Art or Design piece whose reason to exist is simply because it’s lovely. But when you are creating tools or services or even media, that needs to help people accomplish something — the value exchange is more complicated. It’s not about having to abandon our designer or artistic pride and sensibilities. Which thanks to years of teaching and cultural persuasion aren’t going anywhere. It’s just that they can get in the way when it comes to distribution and usefulness, they conspire to put the artefact first, ahead of its point. Of course it still needs to be aesthetically pleasing, delightful to use and all the other facets that contribute to a good design and great user experience, but it doesn’t have to be identical in every instance.

Unfortunately too much emphasis has fallen on the need to create a pixel perfect, lovingly crafted and static thing. A permanent edifice to the author/artist’s genius. This may be fine for mystics and Art but for business tools?

It’s true that these ‘perfect’ artefacts can be wondrous, persuasive and inspiring, and as such have their place.
However they simply don’t cut it when it comes to delivering continuous value, they are too fixed, too rigid. After all the artefact isn’t the point, it’s what it triggers and the actions taken that really matter. We’ve spent too long thinking about things from this aged publishing and broadcast perspective. We’ve been too focused on how we replicate the original, how we reproduce the exact same instance in another place. If all the effort goes into crafting one exquisite thing but that thing can only be viewed by one person at a specific time and place, it’s utility is very low. The effort to exactly mimic the experience elsewhere fails, it always differs from this first expression, and can never be the same. Even when we rewatch a film or movie it feels different, and that’s a fixed unchanging thing.

We should not waste so much time and effort on this ideal of perfect reproduction, the approach has to flip. The people who will utilise the artefact need to be placed at the centre of the decisions on how the thing is made and distributed. After all just because a person created it on their multiscreen, top of the line workstation on a Friday afternoon whilst listening to Mozart, doesn’t mean that is how everyone else who needs to use it will experience it. The real world smashes this careful single context to bits. The contexts in which different people find themselves when they need to use a thing varies immensely. After all it’s the use of the thing that creates value.

In the past we have tried to imagine and predefine those possibilities, essentially crafting a version of the artefact for each imaginable context. But even without considering the ‘unknown’ contexts it still leaves you with this horrible production cost:

Time spent to perfect artefact
x
Number of ways said artefact needs to be displayed

From Bloomberg Businessweek http://images.bwbx.io/cms/2014-06-24/screensizes4.png

Now imagine the effort for pixel perfect rendition on just the android screens from last year. It would be expensive, impossible and pointless to create all those unique versions, so you have to compromise but the model of ‘exact replication’ gets in the way. You end up creating ‘classes’ of experiences, often as degenerates from the original ‘perfect’ experience.

More than a technique

Approaching the design from this perspective concentrates on the person using it and places their ability to get the most from a thing as the requirement — it’s about user needs, it’s people centric. This means whether I’m using an iPhone on the bus, a desktop with multiple screens or presenting via my tablet and a projector, I get a familiar experience of the artefact but in a way that fits my context. What’s smart is that the content and UI is now automatically fitted to be the most useful for the context. The meaning and familiarity are retained but the exact layout and way the pixels are utilised changes. This enables the same content and experience to be delivered on a wider variety of devices, supporting a broader group of people and contexts. The subtlety here is that it’s not simply cycling through a predefined set of rigid views to find one that fits. It’s reflowing the pieces and allowing the content to adapt and shift to suit the view, whatever that maybe. The design and development skills needed to make this a reality lie in understanding what to show, what to hide and how to prioritise the components so that you get the maximum value for the person who is using it.

How this manifests in the real world

This becomes even more useful when you want to look at a layout of multiple charts (a dashboard) on a different device, or more importantly you’d like to share you dashboard with someone. How often do you know the context it will be seen in? Here we use a grid layout in combination with the responsive model to ensure the whole sheet renders in the most useful and organised way. This means I can walk in anywhere and present, no messing around with aspect ratios and resolutions. No need to rebuild the layout, it simply works. Whether I’m doing it from my phone or laptop, I get the most useful rendition. This fluidity enables the content to move easily in an organisation and reach the people at the edges not just the ones whose Desktop system is the same as the content creator’s.

With this approach you get a lot more value out of the artefact, essentially a higher ROI. And it’s all thanks to a shifting away from focussing on the thing and instead focussing on the people using it. We can replace the scary production equation from earlier with this positive one:

Number of people
x
The value and usefulness they extract from the artefact

The real value isn’t in this technique or that technique. It’s in thinking responsively and enabling the most people to get the most value from a thing by realising its maximum utility. By delivering usefulness and value to the person whenever and wherever the information is needed — not leaving it trapped in a rigid state that only a few people can understand and use on a Friday, whilst listening to Mozart.

Design, Strategy, Data & People

Musings on BI, data, visualisation, innovation and design

Design, Strategy, Data & People

Musings on BI, data, visualisation, innovation and design

murraygm

Written by

murraygm

Designer, thinker, tinkerer.

Design, Strategy, Data & People

Musings on BI, data, visualisation, innovation and design