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Rolling Out Responsive

A note from the editors: We’re pleased to share an excerpt from Chapter 2 of Karen McGrane’s new book, Going Responsive, available now from A Book Apart.

I wish I could tell you there was one true path to rolling out a responsive redesign successfully. But from talking to dozens of organizations, it’s clear that the process by which large organizations go responsive varies widely. Many different approaches will work—but you need to understand the benefits and risks of each approach.

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Can you redesign the entire site at once or do you need to stage the rollout over time? Are you going to retrofit the existing desktop site or start from scratch? Will you release a beta version of the site or do a “big reveal”? To find the right option for your organization, ask yourself these questions:

  • How worried are you about existing customers on the desktop site? Now, no one is going to answer, “Not worried even one tiny little bit.” But some organizations (say, publishers) redesign relatively frequently without launching a beta version—they just flip the switch. Other organizations (say, banks) know they can’t risk frustrating existing customers by introducing drastic changes without an adjustment period.
  • Are you redesigning a web application? Don’t let anyone tell you that web apps can’t be made responsive. They can—but it takes time and effort. If you have large tabular presentations of data, complex form-based transaction flows, or tricky integrations with legacy backend systems, be sure to build additional time into your process.
  • Do you plan to make changes to your content? A responsive redesign is a fantastic opportunity to clean up and pare down your existing content—you may never get a better chance to fix bloated content that isn’t doing its job. That said, many organizations find they can’t do everything at once, so they roll out the content cleanup in stages.
  • Do you plan to implement a new CMS or APIs? Many organizations report that the work they’ve done over the past few years to replatform their publishing systems makes going responsive much simpler. But you’ll need to decide whether to do the CMS or the redesign first. It’s riskier and more time-consuming to do them at the same time.
  • Are your stakeholders prepared for the review process? Some organizations use a responsive redesign to engage the entire organization in learning a new process. Others take a “better to ask forgiveness than permission” approach, rolling out the redesign first and fixing the inevitable broken pieces later.

Once you know the answers to these questions, consider your options for going responsive.

Retrofit

Doing a responsive retrofit means recoding the front end of the website with little or no change to the existing content and design.

I must confess: before I started talking to companies that launched a successful responsive retrofit, I was convinced this was the worst of all possible options, doomed to deliver a subpar experience to everyone involved. My philosophical beliefs about the “right way” to manage web processes don’t always survive their encounters with the real world: I concede that a retrofit works well in some scenarios.

In general, retrofits work best when at least one of the following statements is true:

  1. The content isn’t going to change (much).
  2. Complex web applications don’t need to be redesigned.
  3. A componentized framework is already in place.

Companies like Capital One, Marriott, and Nationwide Insurance have implemented responsive retrofits successfully. Doing a retrofit forced them to focus on the responsive aspects of the project without getting sidetracked by larger questions of redesigning the site, editing the content, or replatforming the CMS. For many websites, a retrofit also helps mitigate political concerns around changing or damaging the desktop experience, since it doesn’t change much.

Here’s how you roll out a retrofit right:

  • “Don’t touch the desktop” is a mandate often handed down to the responsive team, but this guideline is too limiting. It forces the team to work toward unnecessary design parity at the expense of making better design decisions for smaller screens.
  • “Do no harm to the desktop” is a more realistic and achievable ambition. This gives teams the flexibility they need to make adjustments to layout, design, navigation, or content.
  • Set realistic expectations with your team and develop a plan for making changes over the long term. Stakeholders may be surprised when they see how existing content and functionality shifts around on different screens.
  • Consider picking one section for a complete responsive overhaul. A fully edited and redesigned section can provide a useful point of comparison with the retrofit. Picking a section for a complete redesign will give teams experience with the process, show stakeholders what’s possible, provide insight into the level of effort that can inform future scoping processes, and offer real-world data about how a fully redesigned experience will perform compared to the retrofit.

Beta release

In recent years, popular web applications like Gmail, Flickr, and Delicious launched in beta—and stayed in beta. This “perpetual beta” approach was a precursor to the continuous deployment practices used by many applications today to support ongoing development and testing.

Today, when teams say they’re launching in beta, they often mean that users can opt out of the new site at any time and return to the “classic” version of the website. This “parallel beta” approach requires significantly more time and effort to develop and review, but in return delivers the ability to roll out the redesign slowly, gathering user feedback and analytics data along the way.

Companies like Fidelity, Beatport, and the Guardian have invested in parallel beta releases, which gave them a way to test and learn from the responsive design over time. Stephen Turbek, SVP, User Experience Design at Fidelity, said their decision to launch in beta was crucial to their success:

One of our first steps was to build a beta site that people could opt-in to, try out for a while, and return to the current site. The beta site was significant additional work, but iterating live on a site with millions of passionate customers would not have been the right approach. This enabled us to make changes faster and get lots and lots of user feedback.

Here’s what needs to happen to launch a successful beta:

  • A test-and-learn culture should already be established in your organization. Teams must be comfortable working in tight cycles of iteration and testing—most teams will need to run tests every six weeks, and even as frequently as every week or two. If you don’t already work this way, building a culture of learning from research will take time and add complexity.
  • Technical architecture and publishing infrastructure must be in place so users that can opt in and out, which can be costly.
  • Executive buy-in from stakeholders who see the value of the beta process and are willing to invest in maintaining two versions of the site—not to mention driving traffic to two different URLs—is crucial.
  • Quality assurance testing (QA) becomes exponentially more complex when testing on more form factors. Don’t underestimate the time or staff you’ll need to QA two versions of the site.
  • Rolling out the beta in stages will help control who can access it. Alex Breuer, Creative Director at the Guardian, said they found that showing the beta site to users coming in through search or social “was a gentle way of introducing the new Guardian experience.”
  • Assume early feedback will be negative if your beta site excludes content or functionality from the old site. Help stakeholders understand that negative feedback is not a sign of failure—in fact, getting these comments early is the whole point of the beta.

Mobile-only responsive

Another rollout strategy—often but not always implemented in the context of a beta release—is to develop a responsive website that covers all sizes of smartphones and tablets, preserving the current fixed-width site for desktop users only. In a sense, this approach is a “responsive m-dot site,” but that word puzzle twists my brain into a knot, so let’s not call it that. We’ll call it a mobile-only responsive site.

A mobile-only responsive site buys an organization time to focus on larger, more complex issues. Companies know they need a site that serves mobile users, but they’re afraid to hurt existing desktop traffic. But they also know the site needs a complete redesign or major backend infrastructure improvements, so they don’t want to do a retrofit. In that sense, a mobile-only responsive design offers the best of both worlds. Teams can focus on getting the responsive design right, without dealing with the stakeholder politics and operational risks inherent in changing the desktop mothership.

But this approach is also the worst of both worlds—it allows stakeholders to keep believing that the desktop website is the “real” website, downplaying the large and growing population of mobile users. It also means, as with all m-dot sites, that smartphone and desktop users will suffer from the same performance hit due to server redirects.

Here’s what can you do to launch a successful mobile-only responsive site:

  • Treat it like a beta even if you’re not rolling it out in stages. Have a plan for gathering data, testing, and revising the responsive site. Over time, plan for a staged rollout to desktop users.
  • Make tough choices about content and functionality. This rollout strategy is most successful when it is used to clean up and pare down a site that’s gotten out of control. If you’re not prepared to make the hard decisions, just do a retrofit.
  • Educate your team on what makes a responsive website successful.
  • The risk with a skunkworks approach is that the “mobile” team will go off and do its own thing and the rest of the organization won’t learn from the experience.
  • Make it the real website. Set expectations that this process isn’t about building a “mobile” website—it’s about building a site that will eventually replace the desktop.
  • Know when to stop investing in the desktop site and shift resources to the responsive site. BBC News said that continuing to work on their desktop site “sucked resources and morale and that cost us dearly by delaying our strategic move to ‘Responsive News.’”

Section by section

Other organizations choose to start with a specific section—even one particular page or template type. Rather than doing the entire site at once, they choose to sandbox their efforts and give teams time to practice.

Which section should you start with? The answer to that question varies as widely as any other rollout approach. Some organizations report that they picked a section they knew they wanted to redesign. Celebrity Cruises started with their Destinations section, making it responsive as part of a larger effort to rewrite content and replatform the CMS. Other companies start with a less popular section, a section run by stakeholders who are excited about the process, or one that gets a disproportionate amount of mobile traffic.

And then there’s Microsoft, which started with their homepage. This Potemkin village approach to a responsive redesign can frustrate users—promising them a website that works well on mobile devices, only to betray those expectations on the first tap. But Chris Balt, Senior Web Product Manager at Microsoft, reported that it helped them get organizational buy-in on going responsive:

Other sites have taken different approaches, starting from the bottom up or with some out-of-the-way corner of the site. Our attempt to do it first with the homepage—and beautifully so, if I say so myself—was a good choice. It led to significant visibility that I don’t think we would have gotten if we had started with some second-level support site or something like that. So even though the experience for a user may have suffered—they are one click away from a non-responsive experience—the visibility that it obtained us politically, organizationally, both inside and outside the company, made it a great choice. I am very glad that we did it that way.

Here’s how you might go about rolling out a responsive redesign by section:

  • Choose a section that reflects the types of problems or design patterns you’ll find elsewhere on the site. Some sections, like “Investor Relations” or “About Us,” may be easier to implement because they have relatively simple content and layouts—but they won’t provide as much insight about how to handle more complex problems.
  • Focus on your core. As with Pilates, your core does all the work. Look at your traffic and usage data to identify the pages and sections of the site that matter the most to users. Put your energy there.
  • Make sure your first-round stakeholders are on board with the extra effort required to support the redesign. They’ll be asked to make unfamiliar decisions—and they’ll need to share and defend their rationale with the rest of the organization.
  • Track and document scope to inform future initiatives. Knowing how long certain processes take, where design and development teams ran into difficulty, and which decisions were challenging for stakeholders will help you plan the next phase of work.
  • Make global decisions with everyone in mind. Some choices really do affect everyone. Dealing with responsive images, designing navigation menus, identifying core content types, developing reusable modules as part of a design system—such topics require buy-in from more than just the people managing a particular page or section.

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