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Why Your Responsive Design Depends on Content

Written by on Sep 13, 2012 | 9 Comments
Why Your Responsive Design Depends on Content

“Must have Responsive Design dimensions.”

Yes, the line above is straight from a recent web development RFP on behalf of a fairly major CVB. A requirement that has joined the list of often requested, yet rarely understood digital demands such as ‘social integration’, ‘mobile friendly’ and ‘SEOed.’

Yeah, ‘SEOed.’

Pure Responsive Design

Recently, our peers at update, with a particular highlight: responsive design.

First things first. The new is certainly an improvement over the previous version…a nice UI, decent content and a site that (one would assume) addresses the needs and goals of Pure Michigan.

But that line about responsive design bugged me.

I know that many of our peers are looking toward responsive design as the panacea for their mobile dilemma, while our agency friends are more than happy to expand current contracts to include this new-found web solution. Add the influence of Pure Michigan on her peers (kudos George and team) and you have what seems to be a glowing endorsement of responsive design for every DMO, CVB and NTO.

But is it necessary?

Is it helpful for the traveling consumer?

Is it just a gimmick?

What is Responsive Design?

So, this article is already too nerdy for you, huh? Well, nice work getting this far. If you need a quick Responsive 101, I would recommend starting here:

The Issue with

The design is responsive, but the content is not.

The responsive version of Stack it high!Scale the website in your browser…the site just stacks, gets longer and lists everything. Including that damn social bar.

Okay, technically, it does not list everything. The Michigan map graphic, hero image caption and the (actually useful) footer link section all disappear. Which tells me that the developers know how to reduce and remove with responsive, but have chose not to.

Why does this matter?

Because for all the talk…at conferences, in RFPs, among peers…about embracing and leveraging mobile, here we have an example of a prominent DMO forcing a desktop design into a mobile environment. Which creates a poor user experience and a poor example for our peers.

The train to Utrecht

The train to UtrechtLet’s look at Christiaan Lustig’s oh-so relevant example to understand why responsive design is a challenge for tourism organizations:

I’m planning to travel to a nearby major city: in this case, The Hague, in the Netherlands. This requires me to travel by bus to the nearest train station, in Hilversum, then by train to Utrecht, and from there onwards to The Hague.

The evening before my trip, I carefully plan the journey, on my desktop computer at home, on the Dutch public transport site, which is very much focused on the top task: planning a trip from A to B at any given date and time.

All goes well with the bus to Hilversum. However, once on the platform, waiting for my train to Utrecht, the announcer states that my train is delayed by some 10 minutes. This means trouble, since I’m dependent on its timely arrival in Utrecht for my connection to The Hague. What to do?

Like its desktop counterpart, the mobile version of – although it has been redesigned quite recently, the site is not (yet) responsive – is focused on planning trips from A to B. But I’m on the platform, in the middle of my journey, and I need to find out whether my Hilversum-Utrecht delay will impact my Utrecht-The Hague connection.

That sounds like a different situation: a different location, a different task. That’s a different context, isn’t it?

Content v. Creative

The difference between what Pure Michigan has built and Christiaan’s example is context.

And context equals content.

We can surmise that Pure Michigan, like many of her DMO brethren, built their digital strategy with design first, and content second.

When goals and content should come first.

Developing strategy with a focus on content.

Based on pure anecdotal evidence, I would venture that 90% of tourism organizations follow strategy a. when developing a digital plan, instead of strategy b.

Which is the error highlighted by responsive design.

A focus on design, rather than context and content.

Now, if the tasks and goals of your primary website are the same on a tablet or mobile device, then yes, responsive design is an excellent solution to the challenges of modern digital design.

But, if the goals of your primary website are not the same as the goals of your tablet solution or your mobile solution, then responsive design is nothing more than a cheap trick, diverting your attention from the true purpose of those mediums.

This is the challenge for tourism destinations.

Is the content developed for the core website coherent, structured and relevant for interactions beyond the laptop?

Have you established key goals for users across all mediums?

The issue is not responsive design, but responsible strategy.

Kudos + Content

Credit where credit is due. We are critical of the Pure Michigan responsive solution, but respect the attempt to break new ground for our industry. The site will be updated, modified and tweaked…including the responsive mobile site. However it is important to understand the pros and cons of the submitted solution.

Responsive design is a subject that you will encounter during your next web development project, but the conversation is bigger than just responsive v. optimized.

You need to shift your overall digital focus from design to content.

From pixels to people.

From wireframes to why.

Before you adopt a solution based upon peer execution, you have to develop a strategic blueprint based upon goals, tasks and content. Rather than buzzwords and bullshit.

Simply adding responsive design as a RFP requirement will not ensure mobile success. Responsive design is not an add-on, but a challenge to develop a comprehensive content strategy.

Start with the content.

Then worry about the creative.

  • Evan Tipton

    Context equals content (updated and accurate, that is)! Great read Troy – hope more stakeholders in the industry get their hands on this article. See ya in SF soon!

    • / Troy Thompson

      Thanks Evan, and thanks for the comment.

      Yes, let’s connect in SF, looking forward to it.

      - Troy

  • Chad Wiebesick

    Hi Troy – I work at Pure Michigan and am glad that the new website is sparking discussion.

    We made a conscious choice not to trim content in the cases you cite.

    I believe it’s important to have access to core content regardless of device, and give users choice in content rather than assuming for them what content is important. In our experience, users find it frustrating to go to a website with all the content gutted just because they’re not on the favored device.

    Content should only be trimmed judiciously and that’s what we did.
    Hopefully lots of people visit the site to explore this issue and draw their own conclusions as they book their next vacation :)

    • Ryan Swarts

      Totally agree and admire your choice Chad. It seems simple enough that a mobile user wants less because she is ‘on the go.’ But we have to be *very* careful about assuming this. Josh Clarke puts it better than I could: . We should be optimizing for mobile and adding things like geolocation. We shouldn’t be stripping things away.

      • / Troy Thompson

        Hey Ryan,

        Thanks for the comment.

        Ah, Clarke v. Nielsen. Personally, I don’t fully subscribe to either theory…but they are a good starting point for understanding responsive.

        My overall view is that tourism organizations (and specific to tourism organizations) assume that users want more choice…across all platforms, digital or traditional…rather than a clear direction. And because of that assumption, we end up providing a lot of useless information.

        No issue keeping the experience consistent from web to mobile. My issue is that we have put too much into the ‘desktop’ site to begin with.

        I am not saying strip away just because it is mobile.

        I am saying strip away because it is needless.

        - Troy

      • Chad Wiebesick

        Yes, we believe consumers what choice in their content. I’ll also add that responsive websites optimized for mobile do not eliminate the need for mobile apps – they compliment not compete with one another.

    • / Troy Thompson

      Hey Chad,

      Thanks for the comment and the background, really appreciate the additional perspective.

      Certainly our opinions differ on what is core content, and I would imagine that in some cases I would be correct, in others, you would be correct…or the Pure Michigan perspective would be correct.

      The key…and the key for anyone reading this article and comments…are goals, content and testing.

      1. Build for your goals.
      2. Create content around those goals.
      3. Test, rebuild, repeat.

      Everyone will have a different answer…I just believe the Pure Michigan answer could have been shorter.

      - Troy

      • Ryan Swarts

        Agree with the basic premise that we need to start with goals. You’ve got it. All design projects, whether #rwd or not (or even digital or print) need to work the way you lined out. Starting with design is never a good idea, but you’re right… Unfortunately it happens a lot.

        • / Troy Thompson

          Hey Ryan,

          Yeah, far too often. And it happens on both sides…client and agency. The client asks for creative in the RFP, the agency presents ideas via concept.

          I worked with a client recently and encountered this very issue.

          They wanted to update the website, so we helped them with the RFP process. My first question to her was: ‘what are your five goals…what do you want to have happen…when someone visits this site.’

          She had no idea.

          Design and creative are easier to understand due to their visual nature. But the key is what you want that design to do.

          Great conversation.

          - Troy