I'd Like a Little Relevant Content With My Responsive Design, Please

Aug 02, 2012

All this talk about responsive web design among so-called content strategists makes me want to puke. Multi-device layout patterns? Fluid proportion-based grids and flexible images? Progressive enhancement? Unobtrusive JavaScript? Want to barf yet? Who could blame ya?

Promulgated by well-intentioned members of the digerati -- folks like information architects and user experience designers -- responsive web design promises to help organizations provide a single source of content that is easy-to-read and navigate, especially when it's being viewed on a mobile device.

The basic idea behind responsive web design is this. By using existing web standards and detection tactics, a website can be programmed to deduce what type of device is being used to view it, then automatically adapt its content to fit the screen real estate of that device. Responsive web design aims to improve user experiences by doing such things as repaginating text and resizing photos. It also seeks to provide useful navigational features optimized for smartphones, tablets, e-readers, laptops, game consoles, and other internet-enabled devices. And, it aims to adjust the content (file size) to work well within the limits of the bandwidth available to the receiving device.

Ethan Marcotte is widely said to be the first to coin the phrase "responsive web design" way back in 2010, but the principles upon which the approach is derived have been in use amongst technical communication professionals for almost two decades. In fact, since the mid-1990s technical writers have been producing multi-channel content -- stuff like user guides, online help, product documentation, quick start guides, customer support site content, and training materials -- from a single source, using appropriate content standards, and outputting that content to various sizes of paper and to various output channels (print, PDF, the web), often in multiple languages and optimized for multiple audiences.

While technical communicators were the first to formalize these methods, they also were the first to learn important lessons that do not need to be relearned the hard way by the responsive design crowd. One big lesson: reformatting content does not guarantee an improved user experience.

"Responsive design and other multichannel publishing methods allow us to eliminate tedious, costly, manual reformatting," says technical communication strategy expert Sarah O'Keefe, president of Scriptorium Publishing. "We view the productivity gains from automation as a means to free up time to create better content."

"The business value in technical content is that is allows people to get stuff done. Responsive design helps us deliver information to more people via more devices. That only helps, though, if the content is useful," O'Keefe says.

Therein lies the problem. Responsive web design is focused on the device experience, not on the science behind automatically delivering useful content -- the right information to the right people at the right time in the right format and language -- efficiently and effectively. And, because it's worked on in isolation from the people who create the content, it creates an unnecessary silo that slows things down and that can actually damage the customer experience.

Technical communication is uniquely suited to help us think differently about responsive design because technical communicators are accustomed to dealing with the creation, management and delivery of huge quantities of customer support information. They understand that it's not enough to repackage the same content in new, pretty packages. That's been done before. And, while the approach provides short-term benefits in the form of time and money saved formatting content, it does not improve customer satisfaction, engender loyalty, decrease support calls, or increase sales. Presentation isn't the issue. The dynamic delivery of relevant, personalized content is.

O'Keefe and others have been looking at the business case behind the development and delivery of relevant, quality content for some time now. In her latest book, Content Strategy 101: Transform Your Technical Content Into A Business Asset, O'Keefe examines the fallacy of low-cost documentation.

"It is acceptable to assess your organization's content requirements and embark on a strategy of producing indifferent content cheaply," O'Keefe writes. "However, you should do so only after actually analyzing your content requirements. The vast majority of organizations have not thought through the implications of their laissez-faire attitude."

Exactly! Jumping on the responsive web design bandwagon before developing a formal, repeatable content strategy, and ensuring it is connected to your content delivery mechanisms means you have not thought through the process. Not doing so is irresponsible, unprofessional, and a big waste of money. As the trailblazers in the multi-channel publishing arena, look to the work of technical communication professionals. You may find that by doing so you can avoid many of the expensive mistakes made by those who have tackled similar challenges before you.