Elliot Jay Stocks is a designer, speaker, and author. He is the Creative Director of Adobe Typekit, the founder of typography magazine 8 Faces, one half of Viewport Industries, and an electronic musician.

Has adaptive design failed? Of course it bloody hasn’t.

Posted on 23 May 2012 41 comments

This morning I read a ridiculous article on VentureBeat entitled what’s next for mobile now that adaptive design has failed?, written by Peter Yared, who is CTO of CBS Interactive. Read the post and you’ll see that the entire thing is based on the misassumption that mobile users don’t scroll. If that were true, the reasoning might be valid, but it’s not. It’s utter nonsense.

As if this misassumption wasn’t bad enough, Peter’s agenda is skewed entirely towards the impact on advertising. In fact, you could very easily translate the whole article into: ‘listen, we need to get designers and developers to use pages instead of scrolling, because ads get hidden below the fold in a scrolling scenario, but with pages the ad can actually be a full page itself, which means we can make loads more money from advertisers.’

Okay, let’s not blame Peter for his bias. He is, after all, CTO of a company whose primary revenue stream comes from advertising. Of course he’s going to be concerned about the impact of ads. But — as both a content creator and a content consumer — I take issue with two key points; namely:

  • that responsive web design (a term he mistakenly refers to as interchangeable with ‘adaptive’ design) has somehow failed; and
  • that it’s somehow possible to judge success of failure of a design methodology by ad revenue alone.

Please allow me to address some points that are just plain wrong:

We […] are learning the hard way that a one-size-fits-all solution delivers a subpar user experience.

Not only does this completely contradict the notion of what responsive design actually is (the core content might be the same, but the design should be flexible enough to allow for multiple adaptations without needing to know specific device details), but saying it delivers a subpar user experience is akin to claiming all oil paintings are inferior to all watercolour paintings. Criticising the tools is useless.

The tablet is essentially a magazine form factor.

Actually, my iPad’s form factor is closer to my chopping board, but I’m hardly going to prepare dinner on it. Tablets may have magazine apps, and ebook apps might also use swipeable pages rather than vertical scrolling, but it’s only one type of interaction. And if we’ve learned anything about tablet-based publishing in the last couple of years, it’s that recycling print-formatted magazines into an app is a bad, bad idea (unfortunately, most of the major publishers have yet to be enlightened). And it’s nothing to do with pages vs. scrolling.

Users are perfectly happy to swipe through an article that is split into several pages.

This behaviour, right here, is the bane of the internet. Do users enjoy reading articles on websites that are split across multiple pages? Hell fucking no we don’t. The only reason this exists is so ad people can sell more ads.

Users are not perturbed at all to see a full page interstitial ad stuck into the mix while paging through content.

Oh yeah, sure! I just love having my reading experience disrupted by a full-page ad! Actually, I’ll admit that in some scenarios, this is okay. I don’t mind this too much if I’m reading a magazine-like app, and if the ad itself is relevant. But as advertising is very rarely relevant and very frequently infuriating, suggesting this behaviour should become some sort of norm is all kinds of wrong. It is of benefit only to ad execs. See the pattern emerging here?

It is painful for engineers to have to support three different use cases for three different form factors.

And finally, we have it: solid proof that Peter Yared does not understand responsive design. (And I’m sorry, Peter. Perhaps you’re a very nice man, but I’ve got to call you out on this.) The web is not experienced simply through desktop, tablet, and phone; it is experienced in every shape and form imaginable, and some unimaginable. True responsive design is not about catering for specific device pixels — whose dimensions become outdated with every new model that appears on the market — or labelling an experience as ‘this type’ or ‘that type’. It is about creating designs so fluid and adaptable that specifics are not needed; so organic and open that the notions of desktop and mobile and TV and whatever else are blurred. After all, my 11" MacBook Air is far closer to a tablet than my 24" iMac, so the ‘desktop’ label no longer applies. Yet my iPad’s pixel dimensions are far closer to my iMac’s, so ‘mobile’ no longer applies. And let’s not forget that browsing the web on Mobile Safari is a wildly different experience to doing so on other, less advanced mobile phones.

Sometimes, sites work well across the board with only minor adjustments. The simpler the design, the less work has to be done. This is certainly the case with my site, Trent’s, Tim’s, or Zeldman’s. And it’s not because we’re lazy designers — our sites are this way because the emphasis is on content; on cutting away the cruft regardless of the platform. (Zeldman said it best.) And yes, of course there is a lot more work involved on some websites and applications. But to tar everyone designing responsively with the same brush shows nothing but a gross misunderstanding of the term itself. And, as Fernando Mateus said to me on Twitter this morning, ‘The last person [who thought] a webpage was like a magazine was a 7 year old child.’

So, ladies and gentlemen, we have a high-profile ad executive at a high-profile company who doesn’t understand the web. Who knew?

Responsive design is absolutely the future. Sadly, for many people, it has yet to become the present.

Update: VentureBeat got in touch to ask if they could re-publish this article on their site and it’s now live!

41 comments

  1. James Baldwin

    James Baldwin

    23 May 2012 @ 04:45PM #

    Couldn’t agree with you more Elliot on this one. I too read this article this morning and was a little dumbfounded at some of the claims!

  2. Chris Meeks

    Chris Meeks

    23 May 2012 @ 05:14PM #

    Elliot, I’m so glad you brought attention to this.

    We have a wonderful community of friendly, happy professionals that do our best to pat each other on the back and applaud our successes. Which means it’s rare that someone call out anyone who needs calling out. But when it’s justified (as in this case), we need people to say, “Um, wait a minute. This guy is trying to change the conversation with inadequate reasoning and a poor vocabulary!”

    Responsive design hasn’t failed at anything. When done right, it’s made the user’s experience much better than them struggling through clickable areas that are 5px by 5px on a shrunken site. And it has a tendency to simplify and refine a site’s message to boot! But I don’t need to tell you that!

  3. Joseph Alessio

    Joseph Alessio

    23 May 2012 @ 05:18PM #

    That was a good article, thanks! I do find it interesting that the high-level executives often misunderstand the web completely. Part of it is, like you mentioned, that his entire focus will be on ads and thus his position is shaped by the simple thought, “how well do ads perform on mobile?”

  4. ⓕⓣ

    ⓕⓣ

    23 May 2012 @ 05:21PM #

    Cheers! Here’s to another voice of reason atop the sea of traffic-bait blathering. Also, bigType++;

  5. Mat

    Mat

    23 May 2012 @ 05:27PM #

    That’s him told. I’m no web master but even i was shocked at that article, i’m glad you wrote this as i was hoping someone would. I hope this post will be read by said author.

    Love you

  6. Dave Walker

    Dave Walker

    23 May 2012 @ 05:29PM #

    I gotta agree here with Elliot and I’m first off impressed that you didn’t let this one go like so much other blurb out there.

    Responsive design isn’t dead. We’re seeing responsive design coming to many websites slowly but surely.
    It’s still in its infancy but more and more individuals, sites and companies will turn to it because it actually addresses the problems that Peter thinks haven’t been solved AND more importantly… it costs less in the long run! One fluid design means less work overall. Just ask those who have multiple mobile versions of their own website.

    I bet we soon see a responsive version of http://venturebeat.com before long too :o)

  7. Trav

    Trav

    23 May 2012 @ 05:42PM #

    I know they have to sell ads, but anybody who thinks that users LIKE multi-page web articles is really fooling themselves. Great response!

  8. James Williams

    James Williams

    23 May 2012 @ 05:45PM #

    Its not exactly like scrolling is difficult on most devices! In all honesty if there is a full ad right at the top of the page, users will more interested in scrolling to the content or leave the page. Its not like we sit there and stare adverts.

  9. Rob Such

    Rob Such

    23 May 2012 @ 05:52PM #

    Couldn’t agree more, sir. Mainly with:

    Responsive design is absolutely the future. Sadly, for many people, it has yet to become the present.

    Trouble is, I can’t see these advertisers giving in anytime soon.

  10. Jason Hobbs

    Jason Hobbs

    23 May 2012 @ 06:03PM #

    Well put Elliot…calling out Yared but managing to still sound polite.

    I read Yared’s article early this morning and even in my tired state I too picked up on how everything he said lead back to advertising; understandable considering his position at CBS Interactive, but certainly doesn’t excuse him of bashing responsive design.

    If I were to bet on the person that knows both sides of this particular coin, It’d be the guy who did the Smashing Mag re-design; responsive design whilst still appeasing the needs of a boatload (16+ per page?) of advertisers.

  11. Tom Muller

    Tom Muller

    23 May 2012 @ 06:30PM #

    Sadly, this isn’t the first article of this kind on Venture Beat…
    Well, said Elliot.

  12. Mandy

    Mandy

    23 May 2012 @ 06:37PM #

    “It is painful for engineers to have to support three different use cases for three different form factors.”
    I love this. We design and engineer because we’re problem solvers. Having the opportunity to revise the same design for multiple viewports is a challenge that I get a kick out of and that users are thankful for.

  13. Kevin Bruce

    Kevin Bruce

    23 May 2012 @ 06:21PM #

    Couldn’t agree with you more. Here clearly doesn’t get the web, let alone modern design. It sounds like all he knows are things he’d like to tell his ad clients.

  14. Jason

    Jason

    23 May 2012 @ 07:20PM #

    Truer words have never been spoken:

    “And if we’ve learned anything about tablet-based publishing in the last couple of years, it’s that recycling print-formatted magazines into an app is a bad, bad idea (unfortunately, most of the major publishers have yet to be enlightened).”

  15. Elliot Jay Stocks

    Elliot Jay Stocks

    23 May 2012 @ 09:18PM #

    Thanks for the feedback, folks! Great to hear that you’re all in agreement!

  16. Sent Concepts

    Sent Concepts

    23 May 2012 @ 10:30PM #

    Hey Elliot,
    I couldn’t agree more, I thought his article was ludicrous.

  17. Khalid

    Khalid

    24 May 2012 @ 12:33AM #

    Totally agree with you Elliot, responsive web is the future… I like what Andy Clarke once said; if its not resposive, its not webdesign.

  18. Matt Halliday

    Matt Halliday

    24 May 2012 @ 01:35AM #

    Fantastic article and redesign, Elliot.

    Peter makes some pretty stupid assumptions in his article about his users and their browsing experience. He clearly can’t tell the difference between tolerating something and being “perfectly happy” with it.

    I actually can’t think of two worse things currently plaguing the web than intrusive advertising and multi-page articles – I’m sure most other people would agree with me.

    Unfortunately, Peter has declared that adaptive design is dead and he would rather bow down to advertisers than create a pleasant experience for his users.

  19. Richard Fink

    Richard Fink

    24 May 2012 @ 01:50AM #

    The author may be perfectly sincere, but the premise sounds like propaganda.
    Why not go whole hog and say the whole “Internet Experiment” is failing.
    It’s the kind of outlandish thing one expects from a fringe political group:
    “Now that Democracy has obviously failed, I assume the nation is finally ready to turn to [insert your favorite odious ‘ism’ of choice here].”
    Preposterous.

  20. Peter Yared

    Peter Yared

    24 May 2012 @ 06:33AM #

    I was reading your post on my phone but then my thumb got tired. :) Clearly we have a philosophical difference. I don’t get the beauty of designs that morph into every imaginable device. And you don’t get the need for publishers to have designs that integrate advertising well. No big deal – use your metaphor for your sites, and let publishers like us go our own way. The article I wrote was for VentureBeat, not a design magazine, and meant to help people with business ventures make money.

    I have to add in your paragraph about how I clearly don’t understand responsive design, you state ‘my 11" MacBook Air is far closer to a tablet than my 24" iMac’. In fact, your MacBook Air is very different from a tablet from a user interaction perspective – it has a keyboard and trackpad, no touchscreen, and you hold it differently. Might I suggest that the next time you are on a plane, walk down the aisle and watch how normals use their tablets, smartphones and notebooks. And design for that.

    Peace out.

  21. Rachel

    Rachel

    24 May 2012 @ 08:49AM #

    Great article. I can tell you from experience that page counts and the driving force behind the design of newspaper sites, I spent a frustrating year working for the regionals department of one of the biggest UK newspaper firms. They redesigned their slideshow widgets from a perfectly good javascript based system to one that required reloading the page for every image just so they could increase the number of ad shows even though the ads weren’t necessarily changing.

    Also I have started showing my dislike of full page ads by immediately departing any site that uses them. Website owners have a choice as to whether or not to use them and as a user I have a choice as to whether I want to use a site that uses them.

  22. Patrick H. Lauke

    Patrick H. Lauke

    24 May 2012 @ 09:47AM #

    “your MacBook Air is very different from a tablet from a user interaction perspective – it has a keyboard and trackpad, no touchscreen, and you hold it differently. Might I suggest that the next time you are on a plane, walk down the aisle and watch how normals use their tablets, smartphones and notebooks. And design for that.”

    that’s you told then, Elliot! Start designing for normals! sigh

  23. Patrick H. Lauke

    Patrick H. Lauke

    24 May 2012 @ 09:52AM #

    Peter … your comment here further cements my suspicion that this goes further than just a “philosophical difference”
    “I don’t get the beauty of designs that morph into every imaginable device” interesting. So do you also still design for specific screen resolutions? Have we not learned over the last decade or so that there are better ways to craft experiences?
    “And you don’t get the need for publishers to have designs that integrate advertising well” strangely, flexible layouts, RWD, etc are just tools, and used correctly they can actually HELP you integrate advertising well. This is akin to saying “you kids carry on with your CSS layouts, but only with TABLE based layouts can you get a consistent experience” or similar. It’s completely orthogonal to your argument.
    “The article I wrote was for VentureBeat, not a design magazine, and meant to help people with business ventures make money.” that doesn’t detract from the fact that your advice is wrong, or at best highly misguided?
    Anyway, let’s agree to disagree. “let publishers like us go our own way” gladly.

  24. Patrick H. Lauke

    Patrick H. Lauke

    24 May 2012 @ 10:13AM #

    “I was reading your post on my phone but then my thumb got tired”
    I wish Elliot just paginated his blog posts, and particularly the linear temporal flow of comments. Spice them up with interstitials as well for increased monetization…

  25. Ash

    Ash

    24 May 2012 @ 10:29AM #

    Great post Elliot. It appears we are still some way from the demand for RWD permeating beyond the web community. When I explain the concept to clients and friends (normals , if you will – thank you Patrick) I face a response that sits somewhere between incredulity and wonderment; as though I’ve announced not only can I turn base metal in gold, but I can get it to sing and dance too.

    Hold tight though, troopers. When the world does wake up, it’s going to get busy.

  26. Harry Watson

    Harry Watson

    24 May 2012 @ 07:39AM #

    Scrolling is not a good practice for any website designer because various features that get hidden due to this scrolling have much importance for the website’s working.

  27. Simon Cox

    Simon Cox

    24 May 2012 @ 12:49PM #

    Excellent rebuttal Elliot. When I read this article I was incensed at first then realised that he didn’t fully understand the concepts and I was going to add some terse comments but then on reflection the angle used on this article is inflammatory on purpose – it drives ad revenue in itself. Therefore that piece is nothing more than a sensationalising trolling article and is irrelevant. I like to read good challenges to new concepts as they either break them, send them off in new directions or make them even better. Unfortunately the article really did none of those.

  28. Tom

    Tom

    24 May 2012 @ 02:52PM #

    Isn’t one essentially creating multiple designs when using responsive techniques, one for each breakpoint?

    I don’t think responsive is realistically the one-size fits all technique because you still have to plan and layout the content per each breakpoint.

    Any thoughts or clarifications would be great!

  29. Patrick H. Lauke

    Patrick H. Lauke

    24 May 2012 @ 03:18PM #

    @Tom “Isn’t one essentially creating multiple designs when using responsive techniques, one for each breakpoint?”
    exactly. It’s a tool, and how far you take it in its use is up to you. The only thing RWD can’t do is changing the content itself, which perhaps is what Peter means (but if he does, he should really actually write that). Otherwise, this is essentially the same as arguing that using a print stylesheet will never replace making a separate “printer-friendly” page as the needs of the printed paper user are different…

  30. Andreas Øverland

    Andreas Øverland

    24 May 2012 @ 03:33PM #

    Agreed Elliot. I’m on a project as a front end developer/architect. We have just implemented responsive design on a self service web application for a telecom&internet service provider in Norway. It is reaching one million registered users.

    They use the application to administer all their subscriptions and offers, including getting detailed information about the current cost of usage, invoices, upgrade possibilities, ordering new products and more. Until recently this web application was only available in the normal desktop size design. Now we have made it available (read:user friendly) for the soon to be 60% of users who visit the site from the very mobile devices they bought from the company.

    And, it has no ads. The only thing the application has, is a need to be user friendly on most screen sizes.

    I’ll try a quick reply to Tom as well.
    When we first started with our work with designing the new responsive layout for the already existing desktop design and functionality, we looked at many of the sites over at http://mediaqueri.es for inspiration. Perhaps 99.9% of the sites listed there are content sites, like blogs, newspapers and the like. Some of which are completely dead.
    Anyway, we boldly stated that we had 2 breakpoints or 3 designs at given pixel widths that matched the coolest devices. As soon as we started developing, we saw that this was the wrong approach. Mind you, this was not a proper “mobile first” approach, because we had the desktop solution and did not have the time or money to re-develop the back end integration. After a bit more research we saw that the breakpoints should not be the same for all elements on one page. Instead we went from page-based breakpoints to module-based breakpoints. For example, this could mean that the global menu has its own breakpoints that may not match the breakpoints of the search-bar.
    We looked at some other third party products that are supposed to give a perfectly good mobile/pad experience just by magically converting the existing pages to fit 30000 different devices specs. But we didn’t really believe that that would be better than building one solution to fit 90% of the users that we know we have ourselves.
    Also, there are different approaches or perhaps definitions to responsive design. Look at Apple’s pages. Its fairly easy to double-tap on the iPhone to zoom in to sections, which have big headers to make them readable when looking at the whole page. Another thing to take into consideration is using a fluid design or not. Some use static design grids that SNAP into other designs as the screens get smaller. That’s responsive as well.

  31. James

    James

    24 May 2012 @ 07:39PM #

    It’s sad that execs like Peter just don’t get it. They have the resources to do amazing things (like Boston Globe), yet they cannot see beyond their traditional ad mentality. Instead of rejecting Adaptive/Responsive ideas, they should understand that these ideas can increase the effectiveness of their advertising. The possibilities are endless, but they are far too entrenched into the old display ad model to notice.

    Thanks for fighting Elliot!

  32. Cody

    Cody

    24 May 2012 @ 09:39PM #

    “I don’t get the beauty of designs that morph into every imaginable device. "

    I’ve never heard a statement so ridiculous. If the goal of design is to communicate a message in the most accessible way possible, wouldn’t you WANT to custom tailor your content for as many possible applications as possible? I think he’s just lazy.

  33. Stephen Howard-Sarin

    Stephen Howard-Sarin

    25 May 2012 @ 03:53AM #

    I will now put my head into the lions mouth… I am an advertising exec, and I worked at CBS Interactive for 10 years. I’m only slumming here on Elliot’s site (instead of Morton’s for an expense-account lunch) because the best designer I ever worked with sent me the link. And, well, he’s pretty smart; I want to read what he reads, so I can pretend to be smart while I sell advertising.

    The thing is, good design is hard, right? It needs boundaries to define its purpose, but the boundaries of mobile devices are, well, annoyingly rigorous. Responsive Web design sounds great at first, but I bet it’s only easy if you have nothing to say and not many things to do. Once you add a little product amibition, the tough work starts and the coffee starts to brew.

    You can solve design problems with design skills, good tools, and a lot of coffee. Fine. But advertising is not often solved within a single product; it’s solved across many. That’s why TV ads are mostly 30-seconds long and Web ads are mostly 300×250. That’s why Facebook will change over the next 12 months. You can’t design a new industry-wide consensus, regardless of how much coffee you drink.

    So if ads are paying for your product ambition, then it’s no fair to just toss them aside in a design solution. They are either another set of boundaries you need to create goodness within, or their own problem that needs design skills, tools (and coffee) to be solved in a new, responsive way. A great web design that cuts out the business model as just so much cruft is not a design solution. And that smart guy I mentioned is always telling me that great design is always a solution.

  34. Patrick H. Lauke

    Patrick H. Lauke

    25 May 2012 @ 08:49AM #

    @Stephen just to make it clear: responsive web design, adaptive web design, etc are not in any way against advertising. on the contrary: using those tools responsively you can make your adverts shine in the best possible light on the greatest number of devices/screen sizes. Peter has misguidedly claimed that the two are at odds somehow…which is just blatantly wrong.
    “Responsive Web design sounds great at first, but I bet it’s only easy if you have nothing to say and not many things to do. Once you add a little product amibition, the tough work starts and the coffee starts to brew.”
    and that is true for ANY good design. it’s easy if you don’t have ambition, but it’s hard if you want to do your job properly. so, should we be dismissing RWD and co because, according to peter’s vacuous “analysis”, they “failed”? no, we roll up our sleeves, man (or woman) up, and use the tool in the best way possible to achieve our ambitions.
    “A great web design that cuts out the business model as just so much cruft is not a design solution” and nobodoy, NOBODY is arguing that the choice is EITHER monetization OR responsive web design. that’s a misguided dychotomy that peter has somehow tried to set up in his own article. that’s what people are inflamed about.

  35. Danny Bluestone

    Danny Bluestone

    25 May 2012 @ 01:05PM #

    Great article. Adaptive Web Design (and responsive web design) has far from failed is has only began! More and more companies are morphing or changing their app economy strategy due to the power of adaptive web design.

  36. Stephen Howard-Sarin

    Stephen Howard-Sarin

    25 May 2012 @ 03:53PM #

    @Patrick: I think we’re agreeing here. Great design is an aspiration, RWD is a technique, and nutty screen sizes and ad dimensions are problems to be solved. Also: Yared’s head appears to be full of cotton candy on this issue.

    (And to be fair to the community on Elliot’s site, the comments here are not at all anti-ad. I was conflating some comments from VentureBeat with one ones here. Sorry for that. It’s tough being a troll.)

  37. tb

    tb

    26 May 2012 @ 12:49AM #

    Ha! Peter deserves a #fail Good post as usual Elliot!

  38. @mimojito (aka efren)

    @mimojito (aka efren)

    26 May 2012 @ 01:35PM #

    I think you’re both missing the point entirely. What Prasad is addressing isn’t a design problem, it’s really a content problem. To think that you can somehow make your site responsive when clearly your content strategy is broken is ludicrous. Because of that he’s calling out a basic flaw he sees in that responsive design is the proverbial scapegoat for poor content.

    The lack of suck comes more from the streamlined content than the design.

  39. @mimojito (aka efren)

    @mimojito (aka efren)

    26 May 2012 @ 02:23PM #

    I meant Peter Yared not Prasad. Damned iPad-fat-fingered-missed-the-space-bar-auto-correct!!

  40. Strangepants

    Strangepants

    29 May 2012 @ 04:17AM #

    Peter Yared does have a philosophical difference with you, and it’s got nothing to do with responsive design. Your differences are centred around the nature of ‘content’ and how to design it for readers.
    Andy Rutledge has done a good job of addressing Yared’s philosophy: http://andy-logic.com/2012/05/the-emperor-has-no-content/

  41. andy

    andy

    01 June 2012 @ 11:13AM #

    relax everybody – the web will all be flash in a few years…according to Paul Putwain, a position which Mike Woodley of www.quincunx.com almost entirely agreed with! (then again looking at his site it is obvious he doesn’t know much of anything regarding design)

    those not agreeing with this position don’t understand that the web is NOT a useful tool for people to connect/interact/disseminate. It IS a place for companies to spam your enjoyment of information with annoying irrelevant ads and pointless animations…

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