ethan-marcotteYou (literally) wrote the book on responsive web design back in 2010. A second edition was released in December 2014. So let’s start with a simple question: Has responsive design finally arrived?

Responsive design has accrued a lot of mainstream interest, especially over the last two years.

It’s been amazing to see brands, agencies and designers I really admire take that simple little formula in that one-off article and run with it.

You’ve described yourself as a somewhat lazy person when it comes to web design. What do you mean?

It’s a model for the conservation of effort. Historically, you designed separate experiences for desktop, browsers, mobile browsers and eventually tablet browsers, and that’s just not sustainable.

We should be looking for opportunities to do a little bit less. We should be looking for ways to let the natural flexibility of the web hold sway and try to be a little bit looser with how we think about delivering our designs to our audiences.

In your view, what’s the danger in trying to simply design for the desktop, versus mobile?

There’s no truly mobile use case. We shouldn’t think about delivering small screen users less information and less content. The picture is much more nuanced than that.

The words we use to refer to devices – mobile, tablet and desktop – they’re kind of converging in a lot of ways.

We have laptop computers with really capable touch displays, we have incredibly powerful handheld computers, and we’re starting to see phones creep up in size and approach what we thought tablets were.

So generally speaking, the less siloing we do, the more sustainable our experience is going to be in the long run.

We should be looking for ways to let the natural flexibility of the web hold sway and try to be a little bit looser with how we think about delivering our designs to our audiences.

What about user behaviour? If mobile doesn’t actually mean “on the go,” is it even possible to design for user behaviour based on device?

Not really. We keep talking about context, where we look at a device class and infer a set of user goals or a set of expectations.

For example, there’s the “busy mobile user,” who doesn’t have a lot of time, who’s distracted and running down the street. Then there’s the “desktop user,” who’s seated and focused and enjoying a lot of bandwidth.

There are a lot of individual contexts underlying those words. We’re talking about network, we’re talking about screen size and we’re talking about attention. But outside of screen size, we can’t really detect much.

So generally speaking, it’s best to assume that everyone wants the same content regardless of where they are and then enhance it from there.

When it comes to responsive websites, another major challenge is the so-called, “fixed width” ad problem. In your experience, is there such thing as a great user experience for advertising?

In theory, yes. Vox Media is doing some really great work. They’ve started developing some custom ad properties in-house and they’re actually finding that because they’re responsive and because they’re better integrated with their mobile look, they’re actually performing much better than some of those fixed IAB ads.

Including fixed ads in responsive layouts is a very common problem but the IAB is not really jumping on it quite yet.

There’s some interest and momentum in mobile but broadly speaking we’re still thinking about ads as these perfect little pixel-measured islands that sit in the middle of our designs.

An example of a custom media display on Vox Media's The Verge.

An example of a custom media display on Vox Media’s The Verge.

Let’s talk about the workshops and podcast series you’ve launched with Karen McGrane. What have you learned about the way brands approach web design that’s different from say, a media outlet?

Most of the questions are about performance, in terms of trying to ensure that sites are built as responsively as possible and as lightweight as possible.

Google has been making noise about how site speed is a ranking signal in their search engine results, so this could be potentially good for users but also for businesses as well, kind of a competitive advantage. So talking about how to think about designing responsively, but also nimbly.

The other part is rollout. In many cases these organizations have established digital properties, like existing desktop sites that are probably performing pretty well, but they know that mobile is definitely a growth factor for them, so thinking about how they can move to a redesign and plot that out in a way that’s not necessarily going to damage their existing brand. Those are usually pretty involved conversations.

To promote collaboration, Mailchimp created a studio with a seating arrangements In order to promote collaboration between writers, designers and developers. Image via Mailchimp.

To promote collaboration, email marketing service provider Mailchimp created a studio with a seating plan that intentionally mixes different skill sets and that puts designers and developers in close proximity. Image via Mailchimp.

You recently interviewed Trei Brundrett, chief product officer at Vox Media. At one point he remarked that a responsive design approach is an “organizational approach.” Why do you think responsive design is being discussed this way?

Broadly speaking, mobile showed us that a lot of our old ways of working kind of weren’t anymore.

It used to be a very linear process. You would do all your work in Photoshop and then it was handed over to someone to produce in HTML templates, and then the site eventually launched.

That approach doesn’t scale when you’re thinking about multiple screen sizes, or trying to deal with different interaction models across different devices, or trying to figure out how your design is going to look on different network connections.

UX and design are often organizationally or physically removed from the people who will be producing the work, so introducing the notion that designers and developers basically need to be collaborating more quickly – that’s a big challenge for a lot of companies.

Digital futurist Amy Webb recently told the Newspaper Association of America, “I’d love for newspapers to move away from responsive design as a central paradigm. Responsive design optimizes for the device, not the consumer.” Do you think there are limits to what responsive design can do for customers?

In theory that sounds wonderful, but it’s not necessarily incompatible with starting with some sort of responsive foundation.

I’ve spoken with a number of organizations that are looking for ways to optimize content and personalize it based on what they know about a given reader, for example.

But these organizations are still going to want to start with something that’s going to be accessible universally even if somebody doesn’t necessarily have a profile of their site.

For the most part, people are multi-device readers, so if they’re moving from one screen to another as they’re interacting with our sites and services at multiple points in the day, then responsive design seems like a good first step.

In his own words

Ethan Marcotte discusses the merits of designing in the browser:
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