Remember when building Web sites and communicating with consumers online was a relatively simple proposition? Just a few years ago, most people logged in from a PC or Mac, used Internet Explorer or Safari, and received an e-mail message after requesting information or placing an order.
Then came smartphones, tablets, phablets, gaming counsels, streaming media players, and plenty more. Firefox and then Chrome burst onto the computing scene, HTML5 entered the picture, texting and social media went mainstream, and mobile sites and apps altered the way people access content.
Juggling all of these technologies--along with a growing array of channels and apps--has created enormous challenges for CMOs and fellow executives. That is why, today, responsive design is at the center of digital marketing. Its purpose: to deliver a consistent and convenient experience across the full spectrum of devices, systems, and technologies.
"Technology is changing the way people live and work," said Hemant Ramachandra, partner for Visual and Global Solutions Development at consulting firm PwC, in an interview with CMO.com. "It's critical to create a user-friendly experience."
Simply put, responsive design encompasses the concept of optimizing the viewing experience--including navigation and usability--based on the device a person is using. Using this approach, content adapts in a more fluid and dynamic way to the proportions of the device, thus making it easier to read, scroll, pan, and navigate through text and images. Responsive design often incorporates a so-called fluid-grid concept that handles sizing in percentages rather than fixed units. However, in some cases, it adds or subtracts content that won't display well on a particular device. Finally, it includes cascading style sheets that accommodate media queries based on the browser and device.
Not surprisingly, challenges extend beyond design. The average number of unique screen resolutions an organization or advertiser must support now exceeds 230. What's more, responsive design can lead to slower loading Web sites, higher development costs, and an array of challenges associated with managing content within clouds and across channels. There's also a need to ensure that fluid-grids work correctly and don't produce rounding errors. A survey conducted by the Interactive Advertising Bureau found that only about 11 percent of U.K. advertisers use responsive design methods effectively.
As Simon Hunt, senior manager of Web development at Adobe Systems, told CMO.com: "Without a formal plan and a clearly defined set of goals and objectives, it's difficult to create a cohesive Web and marketing experience."
Beyond The Browser
As consumers embrace a growing array of devices and form factors--and consumerization sweeps through the enterprise--creating consistent branding and delivering the right content to customers at the right place and time is nothing short of daunting. What's more, unlike the early days of the Web and the first browser wars, digital channels--including mobile--are becoming more complex and intertwined. As a result, responsive design is more elusive than ever.
Adding to the stress, customers are more demanding and less forgiving. Attention spans are growing shorter, and frustrated or dissatisfied consumers can instantly click their way to the competition. Amid all of this, McKinsey & Company reported that digital marketing is headed from on to on demand. "Already, search technologies have made product information ubiquitous; social media encourages consumers to share, compare, and rate experiences; and mobile devices add a 'wherever' dimension to the digital environment," wrote Peter Dahlström and David Edelman.
"Executives encounter this empowerment daily when, for example, cable customers push for video programming on any device at any time or travelers expect a few taps on a smartphone app to deliver a full complement of airline services," the authors noted. And while most marketers have learned how to think through customer-search needs, better use search optimization tools, ratchet up monitoring and publishing through social media, and engineer advocacy, McKinsey argues that this is only the start. Better-designed and more functional online spaces and interfaces are also necessary for mobile connectivity, the Internet of Things, and more.
This new order of interaction and marketing requires entirely new types of thinking--and the appropriate data to better identify consumer behavior, added Adobe's Hunt. It also requires a 360-degree view of products, services, and customer interactions--including the way customers conduct research about products and what devices they use. Finally, "it requires designing and coding in a strategic way," he noted.
It's no small task. "Responsive design relies on upfront planning for content and flow. There must be collaboration between marketing and Web development teams," said Vicki Silver, CMO and senior vice president for Feld Entertainment, a Vienna, Va., firm that produces live entertainment shows, including Disney on Ice and Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. It's crucial, she told CMO.com, to understand the goal of browsing experiences and take a uniform approach to delivering content.
Different sites "should share the same visual style and navigation structure regardless of device or screen size," Silver said.
At the same time, Stephen Gliatto, Adobe's manager for business systems, explained that it's critical to design for the form factor of a particular device. An iPhone isn't an iPad, even though both use the same operating system. Likewise, a laptop isn't a desktop computer, which often has a spacious display. "[Ultimately], it's critical to adapt your Web presence to the device, but also incorporate, when it makes sense, features such as GPS,” he told CMO.com. “The reality is that people use devices in very different ways and often for different things. Responsive design takes this into account."
Interfacing With The Future
A starting point for navigating the digital and on-demand marketing space is to understand that success occurs at the intersection of design and programming. If the scales tilt too heavily in one direction or the other, then interfaces and usability ultimately suffer. Fluidity is paramount, Silver said. A cross-functional team must determine the structure, rules, and practices that serve as the foundation for initiatives.
"There are a lot of tough calls," Silver explained. This is particularly true as organizations attempt to sift through the practical realities--and limitations--of designing for a multitude of devices, environments, and scenarios.
According to PwC's Ramachandra, design and usability aren't the end game. They're tools for telling a compelling story. "They are valuable for advancing the desired message," he told CMO.com. By plugging in analytics data, "you begin to understand the people you are designing for as well as their interests and overall behavior,” he added. “You're able to see what devices people use, how they use them, and what content is truly important to people." What's more, it's possible to keep up with the rapidly changing dynamics of the marketplace.
Of course, some trade-offs are unavoidable. "When you carry over design to devices such as tablets and smartphones, you have to decide whether you want to keep it cheap and design three different ways--for iOS, Android, and a Web browser--or build a model that is more responsive and takes into account the specific form factor," Ramachandra explained.
Yet it's also critical to not only think about how the design succeeds on a device, but also how information is projected and presented. "Some content may not work well in a mobile browser or on a mobile device. It might be necessary to go back and design it differently or develop a mobile app--as well as different versions of the app for tablets and smartphones," he said.
Not surprisingly, the tentacles of responsive design touch other areas, too. For example, as the post-PC era takes hold and growing waves of consumers rely on smartphones to access Web sites and content, contextual search capabilities and geolocation features are a key consideration. In September, Google introduced a new search algorithm, dubbed Hummingbird, which impacts more than 90 percent of the searches worldwide. Hummingbird analyzes words and patterns in order to deliver more appropriate results--in some cases based on where a person is, what device he is using, and how he is searching.
Personalization is also a critical component. Of course, businesses benefit by knowing more about their customers--through surveys, analytics, and personal accounts. But when customers can configure products, manage content, and view loyalty points across channels, everyone wins. Personalized accounts make it possible to start configuring a product on one device, save the work, and then complete the process on another device at a later time. "It's critical to recognize that many people now use three, four, even five different devices in different places and in different situations. The ability to carry an identity across different devices and platforms creates a far more appealing environment," Adobe’s Hunt noted.
Expect the landscape to become even more complex during the next few years. Apple and Google are now incorporating voice searches and controls into various devices, Google is introducing gestures for Google Glass, and some businesses are unveiling next-generation capabilities. For example, Commonwealth Bank of Australia now offers a smartphone app that allows a house hunter to snap a photo of a desirable house and view real estate that fits his situation. The app uses image recognition, geolocation capabilities, and the buyer's personal financial data to suggest specific properties.
Others are introducing gaming interfaces, instant pay mobile apps, and software-based smartphone controls for connected devices, such as locks, lighting, thermostats, and home theater systems.
Make no mistake, the ability to deliver simplicity across multiple devices, platforms, and interfaces is paramount. Concluded Adobe's Gliatto: "There are an enormous number of challenges associated with responsive design. Businesses must step beyond pure marketing and IT and think in a more customer-centric way. They must deliver a consistent and superior experience for the consumer."