6 minutes read
What Is Responsive Web Design?

What Is Responsive Web Design?

For modern web applications and software, offering customers and users a clean and intuitive mobile option is nearly a universal requirement. With so many people turning to their smartphones for much of their browsing, shopping, finances, and other elements of life, startups and web developers always need to think with mobile in mind when wireframing and designing their site.

For years, developing for mobile was almost an entirely different specialty than PC-based applications, since the operating systems for each medium were so structurally different. However, over the past decade, innovations in popular programming languages like Python and JavaScript have made designing applications to scale for both desktop and mobile browsing easier than ever before.

This revolution in web development has led to the emergence of responsive web design - a philosophical approach to building applications that mirrors some fundamentals of traditional (i.e. building) architecture. With an eye toward creating apps that offer users full functionality and ease-of-use no matter how they engage with your platform, responsive web design is quickly becoming the norm among developer communities.

So how can you become proficient in responsive web design? What do you need to know and learn to use this principle for building your own new app idea? Let’s explore everything you need to know about using responsive web design to create modern, intuitive web apps and software.

What Does Using Responsive Web Design Entail? 

At its essence, responsive web design is an approach that suggests design and development should be responsive to a given user’s behavior and environment -- based on screen size, platform and orientation of the device they are using. The practice consists of designing and developing software that incorporates a mix of flexible grids and layouts, images and intelligent use of CSS media queries. 

For example, as any user switches from their laptop to iPad while using a particular application, the website should automatically shift to accommodate for resolution, image size and scripting abilities. This also includes accounting for the differing settings on user devices. For example, if a user has a VPN for iOS on their iPad, the website should not block the user’s access to the page. In other words, responsive web design requires that a website includes the technology to automatically respond to a user’s preferences. The benefit of this is to eliminate the need for a different design and development phase as new versions of different tech products are released to market (say, new iPhones or tablets or Android devices).

Similar to responsive architecture when designing buildings or public spaces, responsive web design focuses on using principles that allow your finished product to automatically adjust. It removes the need for a seemingly endless set of custom-made solutions for each new category of users.

To do this effectively, responsive web design requires employing a more abstract way of designing and conceiving of an application. However, as the idea has grown in popularity, some ideas are already being practiced, such as media queries, fluid layouts, and scripts that can reformat Web pages and mark-up effortlessly or autonomously. But that’s just the top-level view of what responsive web design entails. Here are just a few of the specific methods and techniques that are often considered part of the responsive web design principle.

Adjusting Screen Resolution 

With every new device from Apple or Android, there come varying screen resolutions, definitions and orientations. New devices are constantly being rolled out by the major tech players, and each of these devices is often designed to handle variations in size, functionality and even color. For example, some device displays are in landscape, while others may be in portrait or even a perfect square. Additionally, most modern devices offer the ability to switch between landscape and portrait, requiring design that offers solutions for each layout.

Aside from designing for shifting screen views, developers must also take into account the hundreds of different screen sizes. While these can often be grouped into specific categories to limit the amount of programming needed, there’s no way to prepare for future changes in screen sizes (which are often based on shifting customer preferences). Additionally, many users do not maximize their browsers, which itself leaves far too much room for variety among screen sizes.

Before responsive web design became widespread, in the days when flexible layouts were still largely a novelty or special feature, the only things that were flexible in a design were the layout columns (structural elements) and the text. This meant that images could easily break layouts, and even flexible structural elements could crack a layout’s form when pushed enough. Flexible designs were flexible in name only; they could give or take a few hundred pixels, but they often couldn’t adjust from a large computer screen to a netbook or any other major shift.

Responsive web design allows you to make things more flexible. Images can be automatically adjusted, and options exist for design that ensure layouts never break (although they may become squished and unreadable in the process). While the solution is still developing, responsive web design offers developers far more options. 

Custom Layout Structure 

Another benefit of employing responsive web design is the ability to customize the layout structure, to account for anticipated issues or changes in devices (and the features that change with them). For example, in the case of extreme size changes, developers may choose to change the layout altogether, either through a separate style sheet or even better, through a CSS media query. In the past this was troublesome, but by using responsive design, most of the styles can remain the same. Meanwhile, specific style sheets can inherit custom styles and move elements around with floats, widths, heights and so on. If a style sheet made the layout too narrow, short, wide or tall, developers could then detect that during testing and switch to a new style sheet. This new style sheet can adopt everything from the default style sheet and then just redefine the layout’s structure, saving hours of excess coding that would be needed otherwise.

Methods for Showing and Hiding Content 

Another technique used by developers are techniques to shrink different app or software elements proportionally and rearrange elements as necessary, which can help make everything fit if someone switches to a device with a smaller screen. However, it isn’t really possible (or at least, easy) to shrink every single element of a large display to a smaller one. Instead, responsive web designers employ some simple best practices for mobile environments: streamlined navigation, more focused content, or switching content into lists or rows instead of multiple columns. Additionally, developers can use CSS (which has been employed to show or hide content for years) to allow users to easily pick and choose content, which makes navigation throughout a particular app or data set more efficient.

Designing For Devices With Touchscreens Vs. Devices With Cursors 

Once upon a time, the cursor was everything. With mouse-based devices like PCs and laptops, most navigation through a particular website was done by using a cursor to click and scroll as needed. However, smartphones and tablets are rapidly making touchscreen technology ubiquitous among modern devices -- even many new laptop and desktop models feature touchscreens, since so many users are familiar with and prefer using that method of navigation.

Touchscreens obviously come with different design guidelines than purely cursor-based interaction, and the two have different capabilities as well. Fortunately, making a design work for both has become much simpler, thanks to the ever-evolving power of popular modern programming languages. Remember, touchscreens have no capability to display CSS hovers because the cursor doesn’t exist -- the user’s finger serves as the cursor.

There are a number of modern design principles that take this design challenge into account. For example, incorporating sub-navigation on the right side of the page would be more user-friendly for touchscreen users, because most people are right-handed. This lets them avoid bumping or brushing the navigation accidentally if holding the device in their left hand. Since this would make no difference to cursor users, developers might as well follow the touchscreen design guideline in this instance. Many more guidelines of this kind can be drawn from touchscreen-based usability.

How Can I Learn To Use Responsive Web Design? 

For beginning and newer programmers, the first step is to master your chosen coding language by taking online classes to learn the principles and play around with live code. Then, it’s a great idea to take a specific responsive web design course -- SoloLearn offers one that can speed you through the different principles (like those above and the many others not mentioned here) and give you opportunities to practice with coding challenges and quizzes to actually apply the concepts. 

No matter what your coding skill level, knowing responsive web design is a must in the modern programming environment. Whether you want to build a simple web game, or are looking to design a dynamic application for a business idea, a background in responsive web design is the key to wowing users and potential investors alike.