May 23, 2012

Responsive Design: The New Whipping Boy

Over the last few weeks We’ve seen responsive web design get blamed for everything from bad usability to the reason Facebook’s stock is tanking. One of the better thought out volleys came from Kirin Prasad who heads up LinkedIn’s mobile design team. He says:

"Prasad thinks it (responsive design) is all wrong. Responsive design might work for uncomplicated, one-off websites, he said, but for applications or networks (such as LinkedIn is), responsive design is actually bad."

I’m hoping Venture Beat is making this seem more of a blanket statement than he meant it. He goes on to say this:

“You can’t take a mobile app and just scale it up to tablet or desktop,” he said. “A lot of responsive design is building one site that works everywhere, and that works for websites. But it’s bad for apps… You have to come up with a completely different design because of the use case.”

What is being described here isn’t a design problem, it’s a content problem. You can’t make your site responsive because your content strategy is out of whack. The responsive technique is becoming the fall guy for a content problem.

On a larger screen users can skim past what they don’t care about easily, once screen real-estate becomes a premium that’s when your content problems become more pronounced. I dread logging into LinkedIn for just that reason. Are they trying to be Twitter? Why are there news headlines on the home page? Why am I always being bugged to add more information? The app is the streamlined experience the website should be.

I think what Prasad is saying is that this app was an opportunity for him and his team to hit the reset button on LinkedIn’s user experience. And it shows, they did a great job. The article is about how the app is 95% html, but there are lots of apps that are mostly html, the reason this one is newsworthy is because it doesn’t suck. The lack of suck comes more from the streamlined content than the design.

It’s just a shame that what he decided to bash was responsive design. For LinkedIn to go responsive they would have to cut crufty features. That would require admitting they were wrong about old unused features. That would require wading neck deep into the company’s bureaucracy. That would require getting buy in from all levels of management. That stuff is hard, maybe impossible. But starting over from scratch with an app, that’s doable. It’s just a shame that a design technique is getting all the flack for content problems.