Hi, I'm Dave Mulder. This is my website, where I write about user experience and product design.

Originally Published: May 9, 2012

An emerging ethos for web designers and developers

Mobile has finally entered the mainstream consciousness of web designers and developers, and the topic on everyone’s mind is mobile strategy.

Last year, I wrote and spoke about the necessity of context when making mobile design decisions. However, context is almost always opaque, and it is impractical for an organization to select a diverse set of development strategies. With these constraints in mind, I reasoned that responsive design would play a major role in the future.

Well, the future got here a lot faster than I imagined. An ethos is taking shape, and it looks something like this:

Responsive design will become the default web development pattern. Content-first and mobile-first mindsets will be the primary drivers of great websites and web apps. Device-specific and channel-specific apps will only be necessary when context demands them.

In other words, we’re going to have content-oriented design optimized for mobile viewports, and we will use adaptive techniques like media queries and Modernizr to add layers of progressive enhancement.

The only piece missing is inclusive design, which always looks great on paper but never seems to make the cut as a core value. That’s a shame, but at least some libraries (like jQuery Mobile) are trying to make basic accessibility compliance built-in.

Distribution Channels are an Obstacle

Native platform marketplaces are the only significant obstacle blocking the new ethos. These marketplaces serve as major distribution channels, and only native apps are allowed to play. Considering that Apple and Android take a 30% cut on sales, there’s little incentive to open their marketplaces to the outside.

Therefore, the Friendly Web ethos will be derailed if content creators cannot establish traction without going through an app marketplace.

Let’s assume that doesn’t end up being a problem. What’s going to happen to all those mobile sites already out there?

Mobile sites that only exist for viewport-optimization will fade away because responsive design and a mobile-first mindset make separate versions obsolete. But some mobile sites are different, offering focused functionality specific to the needs of an audience subset. What should we do with these?

Well, when a mobile site is not meant to be the viewport-optimized equivalent of a traditional site, context may demand that it continues on as a separately-branded service. Most mobile sites in higher ed are like this. Whereas the traditional homepage serves up an external focus, the mobile homepage provides easy access to resources for internal audiences like students and staff. As long as there’s a need for an internal-focused service, there’s nothing wrong with it existing independent of the university’s responsive homepage. The same will be true elsewhere.


There’s going to be some upheaval in the mobile space as organizations change tack. I’m sure that red-faced executives are going to angrily ask why they have to invest even more money into mobile when they just launched something a few months ago. Or maybe they’re still on the mobile crusade and will wonder who pulled the rug out from underneath. Regardless, a lot of people are going to be annoyed before they realize that they just need to accept it and move on.

Are we done with this for a while? Maybe. There’s still mobile emerging as a mass media, and the forthcoming one-to-many zombie apocalypse. But if you want to roll out a responsive website and take an extended break, you probably won’t miss much.