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Ethan Marcotte: The Map and the Territory

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The Web is a complex place. As we learn to design for it, we constantly need to check our assumptions.

It's very easy to frame the web into something you are comfortable designing for. So far, we (as in our industry) have for example turned the World Wide Web into the 980 Pixels Wide Web, then the 320 Pixels wide web – also known as the mobile web. All the while, we have somehow assumed that almost everyone has the same types of abilities, network connections and devices as we do.

These assumptions, these consensual hallucinations are appealing because they make our job easier. When Ethan Marcotte coined the term Responsive Web Design, he made our jobs a little bit harder. It just made so much goddamn sense to design for the ever-exploding diversity of devices and screen sizes that we had no choice but to try and figure this thing out.

Ethan talked at From Business To Buttons this year, the title being ”The Map and the Territory”. One way of interpreting that title is this difference between the web we sometimes dearly wish we were designing for, and the actual web as it's used by real people. Way back in the ancient pre-history of responsive web design (also known as 2010), this had very much to do with shedding two notions:

  1. That we should design our layouts for some mythical optimal screen size (you should seriously check out that link – it's from 2004!).
  2. That mobile users somehow wanted and existed on a completely separate on-the-go web.

Overcoming these assumptions is by no means a finished battle, fought and won – but a lot of us working with designing websites are at least somewhat used to the idea of creating responsive layouts and thinking about how our sites are going to look on smartphones and tablets.

Taking responsive web design further

At the heart of Ethan's talk was the plea not to stop there, but lift our gaze even higher. As we got to work creating responsive sites, we grew a set of new assumptions that warrant battles of their own. For example, there's the notion that a responsive site is not fast, since it generally loads more or less the same assets on a mobile device as on a desktop browser. There's also the trap of only designing for the class of devices that we, as designers with plenty of access to the latest shiny, have access to.

The web is a communal space, that grows unpredictably and organically. It puts limitations and fuzzy edges on what we can do reliably, compared to the clear-cut edges of something that is simply a software platform, like Android Lollipop or iOS 8. We gain very little from seeing this as a problem, because it sets us up to miss the point – the web is intended to be universal, accessible in the widest sense of the word. To not make use of that reach simply because it's complex and messy is a classic case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Don't be the ass in assumption

Ethan used the newly launched (and responsive) BBC News site as an example of how we can face up to the challenge. Designing in layers, using a Progressive Enhancement philosophy, we can absolutely create something that works on an extremely wide spectrum of devices – and with great performance. He also reminded us that some parts of the world have a much more mobile-heavy view of the Web – specifically in developing countries, using low-end hardware and software.

If you react to that by saying ”Well, our product doesn't target those markets, so we don't need to consider these low-end devices” – please, think again. Web access is only becoming more fragmented and the Web-enabled device explosion expands in all directions. Designing – not optimizing – for everyone is a great strategy to face the unknown.

After all, you don't want to look like the first three letters of the word ”assumptions”, do you?