What To Do in the Meantime: Responsive, Drupal & Nonprofits

In honor of Ada Lovelace Day, I'm giving my blog some attention today. I recently re-themed it with a customized version of AdaptiveTheme Sky. It's finally responsive (go ahead... try it).  Hooray! Which brings me to the topic of responsive, on which I've been brewing thoughts for a while.

It's hard to do anything in web design and development right now without hearing the term "responsive design" until your eyes glaze over. For anyone who needs a primer, I like this one from Treehouse. Responsive is a great concept. An increasing number of people are surfing on phones and tablets, and they expect to be able to do almost anything on their devices that they can do on a desktop. There are use cases where developing a device-detecting mobile site or an app is the better way to go. But much of the time, building one website that can adapt to different screen widths, using media queries, is a very elegant solution. 

So why are so many nonprofits still building non-responsive sites? I build new Drupal sites for nonprofits for a living, and I've yet to have a project that has been able to support what I'd consider to be an excellent responsive design process. Sometimes, an org will initially say they want responsive, and then change their minds later in the project. Why is this? I've observed a few reasons. 

  • Responsive design needs to be done well. If designers haven't learned responsive design concepts and techniques, then it can be difficult or impossible to just "make a desktop design be responsive" and get good results. I know many good, professional web designers who don't yet completely have their heads wrapped around responsive. This is in part because....
  • Responsive is still a moving target. Best practices and standards for responsive are emerging. Devices are evolving so quickly that it can be very hard to keep up. Which brings me to my next point...
  • Good responsive takes time and money. Although I think that, ultimately, responsive site building will become business as usual, right now it's not quite there, and so going there requires at least a little extra time and money. Orgs on budgets with little wiggle room may discover that they can't afford the extra design time it may take to handle mobile user scenarios, or they can't afford a designer with responsive design experience, or they don't fully understand how much they should be prioritizing responsive in their project budgets. This becomes a vicious cycle of sorts. 
  • Users don't like it. Sometimes I'll set up a responsive demo for an org, and they will tell me that they don't like that the site changes on their phone. Instead, they prefer the "miniaturized" version that they can pinch and zoom to navigate. I get this. I've had the experience of having designers and developers make assumptions about what I want to see on my phone, and they give me responsive version that's seriously lacking. I think that all ties back to my first bullet point.

As responsive and mobile-first design strategy concepts mature, I think all of this will become easier. But what the heck do we do in the meantime?

When my colleagues and I start a project, we take a good look at an org's Google Analytics numbers. Inevitably, they show a shift toward moble that's increasing exponentially every month. We use this as a chance to discuss whether or not it makes sense to prioritize responsive design in the budget. If other goals need to come first and the money isn't there, I've been building "non-responsive" sites on a base themes that are responsive-ready. I disable the responsive parts of the framework, but the framework is still there. If more funds turn up down the road, and/or users start complaining about navigating the site on a phone and responsive becomes a priority for the org, then the code infrastructure is ready and waiting for a good designer and coder to make the needed adjustments. This is far from the ideal design and development scenario, but right now it's sometimes the best we can do.

These are my favorite responsive Drupal base themes. Even if you're not using the responsive features, they're all excellent base themes for other reasons:  they're HTML5 and SASS-compatible. They're all heavily used (on tens of thousands of sites, at least) by the Drupal community, so there's a lot of documentation out there of their issues. In all of these themes, there's a place in the admin UI where you can easily disable their responsive features.  

Happy Ada Lovelace Day!


Thanks for your post on responsive web design challenges

Hello Johanna, Thanks for your post. I'm a Drupal Developer and designer and I'm trying to learn as much as I can about responsive web design. Rebuilding a site to be responsive when you have an existing desktop site can be challenging and perhaps costly. I also do Wordpress sites. I recently attended WordCamp 2012 in Vancouver, BC Canada and the presenter on mobile design favoured building a mobile-only site to complement the existing desktop site. The Drupal community seems to favour a resonsive design approach. It's interesting to see opinions on the different approaches.

Drupal Developer/Themer | http://www.seascapewebdesign.com

Thanks, Katy...

Thank you for posting, Katy. I am a fan of WordPress, too, though I focused my consulting practice a while back and took a break from building WordPress sites. So I'm definitely out of touch with the WP dev community these days. Are you saying that you see the wider WordPress dev community favoring mobile sites over responsive? If so, why is that? 

I do wonder whether the responsive movement will get thrown over for mobile sites... or something else that has yet to emerge. Again, moving target.

Alternates for non-profits

Have you looked at Ress(http://www.lukew.com/ff/entry.asp?1392) or Mobify.js?

RESS touches on what you mention with device detection, pragmatically device detection is useful for large projects and the trade off isn't as horrid as many believe.

Mobify.js is really an elegant solution for an existing site with large amounts of content. I'm working with one non-profit at the moment that's diving into the content modelling based on a Mobify.js implementation. While initially the fact that it requires node.js may be scary to some its really pretty easy to get all set-up. From there it's very much like working with jquery.

For me I'm a custom theme guy and I've found that the use of SASS has allowed my to rework the sheer size of style sheets drupal default calls in with the use of partials. Zurbs Foundation framework on a custom theme can be an interesting option also(when building from scratch).

Just my two cents

I'm glad you posted this,

I'm glad you posted this, Johanna. I have many of the same thoughts about responsive design, particularly about the added time and cost (including additional skill required and cost of ownership for testing devices, etc.). I also work on many low-budget projects, and responsive can potentially be a lot more expensive depending on the approach and the complexity of the site.

I'm also interested in your point about users disliking this. Is this something users really want or just something we assume they do? I haven't researched that at all, to be honest. Many mobile devices do a pretty good job of handling normal websites. And often the real prolbems aren't whether the content scales, it's things like whether links are big enough to tap.

The thing that disturbs me the most about responsive design, though, is that people seem to think it's okay to put down other developers and/or their work because they don't do it, or haven't for a particular project. Responsive is a relatively new, immature technique, and it's more expensive. I find this kind of attitude to be quite disturbing. Is it okay to chastise colleagues because their clients pay less than yours do?

So, what to do in the meantime? I just include it as an optional additional cost. I find that many clients are willing to pay more for a more "mobile friendly" site. Others may not, and that's fine. (In reality I mostly do subcontracting and don't make the decisions about this anyway). I don't use base themes at all so that's not a consideration for me.

The thing that disturbs me

The thing that disturbs me the most about responsive design, though, is that people seem to think it's okay to put down other developers and/or their work because they don't do it, or haven't for a particular project. Responsive is a relatively new, immature technique, and it's more expensive. I find this kind of attitude to be quite disturbing. Is it okay to chastise colleagues because their clients pay less than yours do?

Megan, thanks so much for your comment. Yes, I totally know what you mean. I've experienced this at times, too. One example is SASS. Over a year ago, people were asking me if I was doing SASS, and sort of scoffing when I said I hadn't had a good opportunity. I was working on some sites that were small and very resource-constrained, and I didn't think they needed SASS, nor were those projects appropriate ones for me to take SASS out for a spin. I finally have a project now where I have enough breathing room that I can use SASS. As best practices mature and stabilize somewhat, new practices become more feasible and affordable, and if they're good and stay around, they eventually become business as usual.

Using the newest tools and tricks that are the buzz of the moment is sometimes very appropriate, but not always. I've been working in nonprofits for many years. I do my best to make the best decisions I can at the time for each project and each org about what tools to use, and when and how to use them. That's part of the expertise a nonprofit techie, or any techie, brings to a project. (By the way, your portfolio site is lovely, and nicely responsive.)

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