Responsive Web Design

CS-SIS members: Have you gone responsive?  The trend of designing sites that adapt to different-sized screens is rapidly gaining traction. “Responsive” web design has some advantages over other approaches to mobile-optimized content (like building a mobile site or an app) because it doesn’t require a separate content-creation process. One prominent example is last year’s redesigned Boston Globe site, which made a big splash (in my Twitter feed, anyway.)

Libraries and academic institutions have also begun embracing Responsive design. For example, University of Virginia’s new site for its main libraries responds beautifully on my phone, without forwarding me to a stripped-down “mobile” site. And Penn Law’s 2012 redesign resulted in a responsive design for the whole site, including the Biddle Law Library.

There are lots of CMSs and templates and themes and libraries and other help for creating the back-end of a responsive site. But dealing with those templates — that is, wrangling content and navigation in a responsive layout — is also a challenge. Which elements are going to stay at the top on a mobile phone? How should navigation change on small screens — are dropdowns ok? Are you going to completely hide some content or navigation on a mobile screen?

Curious about how their new responsive layout might have affected Biddle Law Library’s approach to some of these questions, I contacted CS-SIS member Jennifer Huck, Biddle's Systems and Emerging Tech librarian. Jenn assuaged some of my concerns about working with a responsive layout, saying that the team she worked with on Biddle content didn’t find it terribly challenging to develop navigation or choose which elements would maintain a prominent place on smaller screens. Instead, Jenn’s team was able to focus on optimizing, by focusing on highlighting most-used content and streamlining navigation. Jenn also graciously shared some information about traffic to the Biddle site, confirming what I’ve seen in my own library’s analytics: steadily increasing traffic from mobile devices, but not yet paradigm-shifting numbers. I'm not yet seeing traffic that reflects recent news from Pew saying that 17% of cell phone owners do most of their online browsing on their phone. But a responsive design seems like a great way to anticipate increasing mobile traffic without the development overhead of creating a separate mobile site.

Advocating for a close look at responsive design is definitely on my plate this academic year. Biddle Law Library’s experience certainly shows that moving to a responsive design can be a positive experience. Anybody else out there planning a responsive (re)design for their site?

For more background, here are some recent resources on responsive design and related concepts:

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