Mobile first=content first?

Yesterday, I attended a 1-day workshop on Responsive Web Design, hosted by An Event Apart. The inestimable Ethan Marcotte got my head spinning with excitement at all the possibilities offered to present content to users via the tools of html5, css3, media queries, and flexible grids. And it also led me to the realization that all too often, we may over-inflate the importance of visual design to the detriment of content design. Yes, a designer just said that!

Without going into more detail than I have time for today, let me list some of the key flashes of insight I experienced yesterday:

  • Before a pixel ever gets pushed around in Photoshop, and indeed, probably before any frames are wired, it is crucial to work out a detailed, concrete content strategy for every page on your site, even if clients resist. No more making a silk purse out of a pig’s ear.
  • An effective web design team needs to include people with solid skills in content strategy, information architecture, and user experience, not just Photoshop, php, and Javascript.
  • Far less time should be spent in Photoshop and far more in building live prototypes using all the tools mentioned above to see how the information architecture and presentation change for different devices and viewports.
  • As a corollary to the above, front-end developers have to be able to do more than install php and slice up a designer’s graphics; they must stay current on tools and approaches that five years ago would have been pigeonholed as “design” or “content”—such as css3 transitions, progressive visual enhancements, and information architecture. Simply put, responsive web design works when there is a tight integration of all parts of the web project process. Front-end developers who can’t quickly test out prototypes—and web designers who run from anything that looks like coding—are both going to be guilty of failing their craft.
  • It is far past the time to assume you know your end users and how and why they access your content; get someone on your team whose job it is to ask, and to bring user research into the development process.

From a personal perspective, I think my previous professional career as a writer and editor could be far more valuable for today’s responsive web design than I ever imagined.

From a professional point of view, I think it may be time for many academic centers doing web design to seriously rethink the make-up and skill sets of their development teams to meet the challenges of responsive web design.

To see the Twitter feed for yesterday’s workshop, search on #aeadc, or go to A Feed Apart.

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