What is a responsive user interface?
02 January 2015

What is a responsive user interface?

The term responsive design is often applied to modern web design.  But what is responsive design and how does it apply to web software development?

As more and more people access the internet from tablet and mobile devices it became more apparent that modern website designs aren't suitable for viewing on small resolution screens.  Of couse you can zoom in on most devices, but that makes the act of navigating around a site quite laborious.  

One solution was to develop mobile versions for a site, that rendered different content for mobile devices. This works, and has advantages. For example having an entirely different mobile site means that the content and features of the site can be tailored exactly to a mobile audience. However most commentators agree that the costs outweigh the benefits. The first cost is financial, creating an entirely different site costs more money.  The second cost is that both sites need to be maintained and updated independently which takes longer.

An alternative solution is to use responsive design.  In responsive design a website displays the same content to all devices, however the content is styled differently depending on the available space. Most commonly a website will show information in several columns on wide screen devices but switch to fewer or just a single column on small screen devices. Another common technique is to switch from a full width menu to a collapsing menu on smaller screen.  In some cases part of the content can be hidden on small screens.

This technique which was developed for websites quickly found its way into web application design. The benefits are equally compelling in this case. While it's always going to more effort to input information into a mobile device (simply using the keyboard is more work) it's very useful to be able to view the information in your application when you're on the move. 

A range of useful tools have sprung up to make building responsive web applications easier. At Webfuel we commonly build our web applications using a framework known as Bootstrap. This is a user interface framework which is developed by Twitter. It started life as an internal Twitter project to assist them in developing in-house software but is now open source and used by a large number of sites. The site you are looking at now was also built using Bootstrap. 

If you're looking for a web application developer and you want to be able to access your site from all devices, make sure to talk to them about the benefits of responsive user interface design.

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