The word of the day driving cross-platform design seems to be consistency. Responsive design has enabled designers and builders all around the world to create digital experiences that adapt to your screen of choice. Whether it’s mobile-first or a desktop experience adapted to a smaller screen, the result becomes very much the same.
There is actually a part of this “same” that is important, and another part that isn’t—at least if you’re opting for the user perspective. When it comes to responsive design, availability is a key driving factor. Or, as Dr. Susan Weinschenk wrote in a 2013 article, “Unless you are sure that your target audience is visiting your website sitting in front of a large desktop all alone in a quiet space most of the time, you need to think about a multi-screen, active experience.” True that.
We have a hard time predicting how users will access our services, so naturally we want to please them everywhere. Responsive design also involves a great deal of familiarity and branding efforts. You want your users to recognize how to use and navigate your services and also to recognize them from a visual perspective, going for seamless brand recognition and integration on all fronts. Even gestures are something well-known smartphone manufacturers are fighting over, so that they, too, can be a brand feature. (Whether human-computer interaction is patentable is another question, one discussed in “Beauty is subjective.”)
But how does responsive design influence cross-platform design? Does it really involve the user or is it an effort to reduce the backend work of our multi-screen lives? Originally, responsive design referred to the inter-operational ability of software programs to run on several platforms. Two years ago, Jody Resnick told Forbes: “As the internet transforms further into a platform of services and user interfaces that tie those services together, leveraging this technology in the future will allow companies to integrate a plethora of back-end services, such as Facebook, Twitter, Salesforce.com, and Amazon Web Services, and then present the integrated data back out the front-end iad layer on a responsive design so the application looks great on all devices without custom coding needed for each device or screen size.”
Seems like a lot of inside-out efforts. And that’s all good. The intent, after all, is to create an available, smooth experience. But should responsive design and cross-platform design be driven by the same thinking? In its effort to reduce inconsistencies, responsive design has created a dogma around “access anywhere, similarity everywhere.”
Applied to cross-platform services, the thinking behind this dogma removes a great opportunity for adding extra value to a platform experience. Consistency fails to recognize that the situations that we use the different devices in are, in fact, already built into the devices that we’re using as functionality deliverables.
There are services released on different platforms that take great advantage of this. My bank service is one example (Scandinavian Nordea) where the app version offers a different, more lightweight experience focusing on cash status, transfer, and payment options as opposed to the desktop overload version.
The Evernote app is another, highlighting camera-related functionalities within the scope of making notes, while the desktop version puts emphasis on overview. Although entirely device-responsive versions of these services would make more sense than non-responsive (some is better than nothing), the current user-responsive versions delivers on function related to user needs. This is something I look forward seeing in more services, including several of the VOD (video on demand) services, where consistency is currently the driver of cross-platform design.
TV screens, mobile devices, laptops, outdoor screens, cinemas—at least still they represent differences to us. And while delivering on function and ultimately user needs won’t be a differentiating factor for all digital experiences, for some it will. The delivery on function, differentiating between devices in a cross-platform service family creates a great design opportunity to combine the unique features of different family members into an accumulated experience.
Dare to not allow your user to do everything everywhere. Dare to at least think about that. Each task has a time, and a place. Be responsive to the user rather than the device.
Image of small car courtesy Shutterstock.