Tuesday, August 6, 2013

"Responsive design" doesn't mean what you think it means.

For some reason, somebody thought that "responsive" describes a user interface with a flexible layout that fits on screens of varying resolution and aspect ratio.  But it doesn't.  The word "layout" is missing from the phrase "responsive design."  Even "flexible" alone would be far superior to "responsive."

Responses come after events.  The simple presentation of a UI isn't an "event" that hits the UI, because the UI doesn't exist yet; its dimensions and layout have to be determined before it's presented.  THEN it's ready to respond.

A responsive design would be one that responds to user input or other events, using AJAX or some similar technique.

With so many words available to us, why would we label something with such a meaningless (or worse, incorrect) term?


  1. “Even "flexible" alone would be far superior to "responsive."”

    Yes, it does sound good, although flexible has, in its definition (at least in some dictionaries), the characteristic of being “responsive”. Nonetheless, I can see this is a more accurate term for its intention.

    In a way, one could argue that “responsive” is not used in the typical (user-)action-response sense, and that the term could still apply because the dimensions and layout are determined in response to the browser/user-agent used, and then presented. The “event” here is being confronted with a particular device, and the response is to provide content laid out in a way optimised (hopefully) for that device.

    Subsequently, the loaded page might then have content and interactions which are responsive, in the sense you adopted (or it could be static).

    But, I suppose the problem with that is most of these layouts are already predetermined (media queries?) for a certain device, screen-size, user-agent, etc, and as far as I know, the user-agent is the one which chooses which to display from the list of available selection, based on the conditions specified. Can this be considered “responsive” if the browser is the one choosing (instead of the site responding)? Perhaps, if one imagines if-else-esque conditions as responding?

    (If there's any responsiveness, it's on the part of the developer (and not the page)... which makes it pre-emptive design?)

    “Responsive” could probably apply more to those websites with code that lets it dynamically adapt and so “respond” (but there could still some pre-empting or pre-determination involved? I guess that will be the case unless there is some advanced AI engine running. :p )

    Sorry for the long comment. I've never really questioned this use of “responsive” until I've read your article, and I'm thankful to you for making me see it!

    1. Thanks for the comment! With all of the words we have at our disposal, it's annoying to see this ridiculously uninformative term adopted for something very specific.