Book review: Responsive Web Design by Ethan Marcotte

My own thoughts…

As a person diving back into the web world, I found this book an incredibly helpful and invigorating read. The examples in the book are intuitive, easily conveyed, and reinforced; but they do require some prior knowledge of HTML/CSS.  From a technical perspective, Ethan focuses on 2 main ideas: relative/flexible sizing of a page’s physical layout and media queries to define different behaviors within different (width specific) contexts.  When I finished the book, I was excited not only at the prospect of rereading it, but also about reading many of the articles he references and to hack on my own learning projects for some hands on experience.  I cannot remember the last time I read a programming book with that much interest.

The concept that struck me the most was that of designing for Mobile from the beginning.  First, let me say that this book basically operates in the context of layout only, not content.  Nevertheless, the idea of creating a base that gets added to rather than subtracted from (or monkey patched to work right) is what resonated with me the most.  That sort of thinking really forces one into the question “what is most important” or “why do they want it this way”. It’s not enough that one can simply crank out a mobile site because this is all grey area stuff.  There is no clear cut binary answer, so the solution needs to be contextualized to know if it is a good fit or not.  Being able to think critically about what’s “best” or what even “best” should be, is a crucial skill.  Gaining a deeper understanding about the context of something is a skill every role of the software development process should have a stake in.

I only have one minor criticism about this book and it is that I felt he devoted a disproportionate amount of space to IE6 compared to HTML5/CSS3.  I acknowledge that legacy browsers need to be addressed from a desktop perspective, but at least spend a comparable amount of time looking forward, considering that the main mobile/tablet market is not IE.  Personally, I think it’s best to start a learning experience with a clean slate to focus on best practices and new paradigms before attempting to incorporate them into legacy browsers and/or code bases.  (Which, to be fair, this book does an excellent job of.)

Thoughts from book club discussion…

Our discussion took an interesting turn when one of the other participants posed the question of responsive content being a compliment to responsive design.  Do you just want your web page to be presentable as the width changes from device to device, or do you also want the displayed content and/or user experience to change too?  The example used was that of a newspaper headline.  In the print world, a writer would create different headlines if they were writing for a full page story vs a single column article.  Does it make sense to tag an electronic article with multiple headlines that would be conditionally displayed based on the width of the viewing screen or device?  This got me thinking back to our Content Strategy discussion two months prior in that content is merely data at it’s core.  It would be really cool to be able to leverage meta-data about your content in conjunction with a [web based] presentation layer responsive to the context of display.

I look forward to ruminating on this subject more and looking for ways to incorporate responsive design into future projects.

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