Beyond “Responsive Web Design”

As our office’s sole web developer, my role is to be a one-stop shop for all of our programs’ basic web communications needs. Except in cases where one of our programs demands a web application that requires specialized computer programming, people in my office come to me when they need a website made start-to-finish, soup-to-nuts. In this sense, I’m a generalist.

But even generalists have specialties, and mine are the ones I’ve found serve me best as a one-stop shop—namely, the kinds of skills that fall under the umbrella of Front-End Development. Things like visual identity, marking and branding, layout design, user interaction design, and the HTML/CSS/jQuery coding needed to realize these things.

Why the CV? Just to tell you a little about what flavor of web-guy I am: the kind that cares, really cares, about the side of the website that real people really see, use, and interact with. That’s me!

To illustrate a point about that, I’d like to introduce you to a design concept that’s currently all the rage in web development that goes by the name “responsive design.” Refer to this Spotlight story from Virginia Tech for an example.

If you view that page on a desktop computer, you’ll see the page elements—logo, menus, main story, sidebar items—placed on the page in places that make sense for desktop viewing. If you view that very exact same page on a tablet or a smartphone, those same elements are re-sized and reorganized so that the page is usable on those devices. (You can simulate this effect by simply narrowing the width of your browser window on your desktop computer.) This is not a separate, mobile-optimized site; the same content on the same page adapts based on how you are accessing the information. Responsive design such as this is one of the tools needed if you’re going to take a “one web” approach to publishing online.

I believe responsive design is important, because a design that responds to how your visitors are accessing your website will, 90% of the time, be the one that’s the most helpful and useful, to them, when they’ve come to you for information.

It’s visitor-first thinking. It’s a focused dedication to giving people who visit your site what they came there to get. And that’s not necessarily the same as what we might think is important for them to see.

But it’s not just about that one particular feature. I do my best to extend this thinking to everything that I make. “A person is going to come here,” I consider. “What will make their life easier in that moment?” Beautiful is nice, but easy-on-the-eyes is better. Visually well-organized, everything easy to find. Everything self-evident or, at worst, self-explanatory. Site content arranged so as to be found in the absolute most logical place in the Main Menu; also, a working Search function for when we’re not as well-arranged as we might hope. Easy to click (or tap) on, and reacts as expected when interacted with. I don’t always accomplish all these things, but this is my Gold Standard. Whatever it is that we want to happen when there’s a visitor to our site, serve the visitor first.

Matthew Inman gets it. (Bonus: link contains appropriate font-bashing.)

I’m a web developer in an office full of international development professionals. I geek out on visitor-first web design so they don’t have to. But I see the same kind of thinking at play in every program I work with.

I’ve heard the critique that international development work amounts to little more than a new, subtle form of colonialism/imperialism. But the people I work with put the lie to that critique every day. They have the same kind of dedication to serving the people in the places where we do our work. They constantly put conscious effort into not imposing our cultural expectations on them.

I’m just a web developer, but to me that seems the right way to be doing things.

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