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Adaptive design lets web content flow like water.
What’s going on when you try to pull up an article or a product page on your smart phone and get something that doesn’t really fit on your small screen? Or maybe the page doesn’t even load, especially if you’re a Blackberry user? Web developer Aaron Gustafson has an answer. The prescription isn’t for you, though. It’s for the web developers that caused your problem.
Gustafson and his wife Kelly McCarthy own Easy Designs, a Chattanooga-based web consultancy based on “adaptive web design.” Gustafson focuses on development, and McCarthy consults on project management. They lecture and give workshops around the world, speaking at nearly 100 conferences since 2003. He has written a book, Adaptive Web Design, and does a lot of writing and editing in his field.
The idea that content should adapt to the specifications of the device you’re using seems like a no-brainer, right? Particularly since everything is going mobile, and “mobile” means dozens of devices with different size screens, different operating systems, and varying technical capabilities.
Gustafson uses the analogy of water taking the shape of its container: “In the same way, our content should flow into whatever it is that is the container or vessel through which our content is reaching our users, be that a tiny lit square in the hand or a big screen on the wall or in their glasses.”
Except that the opposite view is also a no-brainer to most of the people who design and develop websites: the twin ideas that a website needs to look as cool as possible and that the best website is the one that’s made with the best new developer toys.
According to Gustafson, most companies are “stuck in this idea of web design that is what it’s been for the last 12, 15 years. They have designers that spend time drawing pictures of web pages in Photoshop and then they have developers that take those pictures of web pages and convert them into web pages.”
This kind of web design is guided by the search for what he calls “pixel perfection” in which a web page needs to look pixel perfect and absolutely identical in every browser.
“It’s a fool’s errand to try and achieve that,” he says. “Not only is each browser implementation slightly different—in some cases it’s wildly different—each device has different capabilities. And it’s kind of missing out on the whole purpose of what we do, which is to give people access to information.”
He describes a holy war (one of many) within the web design community. On one side are “The people who claim to want to push the web forward because they want to use the latest and greatest technologies. And they want to do that in a lot of cases because those are the fun and exciting things. That’s what’s going to get them a raise or a new job.”
On the other side, “There’ve been a handful of people within the web design community at large that have kind of had that visionary forward-thinking mentality of not trying to overly control what the experience is but instead trying to allow for differences of experience. The web was made to be flexible. The whole idea was that it would be able to go anywhere.”
It’s also important to remember that high-end mobile devices are ubiquitous but far from universal. Although mobile devices account for 50 percent of all computing devices being sold, the expensive devices are being bought by only 30 percent of U.S. households. It is in companies’ best interest, Gustafson says, to design for all users.
Then there’s the accessibility issue. Target was recently sued by the National Federation for the Blind and paid a $6 million out-of-court settlement for something Gustafson says they probably could have fixed for $2,000 worth of adaptive web design.
Gustafson has been in the adaptive design camp since he taught himself web design—both front end and back end—in the mid-1990s. He’s done it fulltime since 1999, creating sites for blue-chip clients like Deloitte Touche, Gartner and Guinness and training web professionals for the likes of the New York Times, Gartner and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“I enjoy seeing light bulbs go on over people’s heads, so that’s been a big part of what I’ve been trying to do,” he says.
Closer to home, Easy Designs offers a bimonthly Code & Creativity speaker series that brings to Chattanooga some of the global web talent he and McCarthy have met in their travels to give free lectures on a variety of web design and development topics. Easy Designs has also created a Device Lab with 46 different mobile devices and laptops running a variety of browsers, which any web developer can use to test a site at no charge.
Adaptive design will be the focus of the next Code & Creativity evening session on April 29 with Brad Frost and Jill Pala and of an all-day workshop on May 2 with Frost and Gustafson. For more information, visit codeandcreativity.com