Responsive design – we need to agree a definition

13 May 2013
Ben Logan

Ben Logan


Passionate about improving services and experiences for the people that use them.

Responsive design – what is it?
It is a truth (almost) universally acknowledged that in order to look big and clever, all you need to do is make the same noises that you hear everyone else making.  This is especially the case in most business meetings, where you can often get away with simply repeating the noises you just heard in order to demonstrate that you:


a) Understood those noises

b) Just contributed to the meeting
As always, the noise itself is neutral – the important issue is what is intended, and understood, to be meant by it.


One of the more popular recent noises has been ‘responsive design’.  I would, however, suggest that a lot of people use it without having a very clear idea what they – or anyone else – actually mean by it.

Responsive design – do we need a definition?
The issue with a term like ‘responsive design’ is that its very popularity makes it easy to assume that we all have a shared understanding of its meaning.  In my experience, no such understanding can be assumed to exist.

This can lead to one of those (all too familiar) awkward moments in a business meeting when various parties have:

  • Been making noises at one another for a prolonged period of time
  • Suddenly realised that they may have been talking about different things

If you’re lucky, that moment will arrive before passions have become inflamed, chests have been thumped and teeth bared.  This is especially the case with issues that people tend to feel passionately about – such as responsive design.

Different interpretations – of responsive design

Most people would probably agree that a responsive design is one which responds to the device on which it is being viewed.  Fair enough.  The tricky issue, however, is: how does the design respond?
Let’s forget – for a moment – the more practical issues of how a design might respond in a technical or design sense.  Instead, let’s think about the actual content, features and functions provided by a webpage.  Most people seem to interpret the term ‘responsive design’ in one of 2 ways:


– ‘All or nothing’
Every single element of a website must be available on every single device.  The only thing that can change between devices is their size and the order of their presentation.

– ‘Device specific’
Every device (or family of devices) can be provided with a different set of content, features and functions, if appropriate.


For what it’s worth, it is my understanding that the ‘all or nothing’-interpretation is closest to the technical definition of the term, but that’s not even the issue.
The issue is that each interpretation can have a profound impact on a website’s:

– Technical build and management
– User experience
– Content creation and curation



Different interpretations of ‘responsive design’ exist.  The main difference seems to involve whether or not every element of a webpage must be present on all devices.
In order to facilitate effective communication, consider agreeing a definition at the beginning of any conversation.  This may help avoid the single biggest problem with communication – the illusion that it has taken place.


Find out more about responsive design and how to design for mobile on our excellent mobile usability training.

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