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Lyza Danger Gardner on Building the Web Everywhere

What We Mean When We Say “responsive”

· Published in Industry, Responsive Design · 23 Comments

My 2014 started with noble plans: not biting my fingernails anymore, learning actual math. One of those plans was to analyze, publicly—here—the divergent and dissonant definitions of our industry’s adjectival darling, “responsive.”

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Alas, I was beaten to the forum by Jason Grigsby, whose recent blog post, Defining Responsiveness, explores some of the very same questions around the term that have dogged me lately.

There’s a timeliness to this confusion over responsive-ness. Questions are being asked. Brows are furrowing. Blog-comment diatribes are taking on an almost doctrinal tone. Topical conference speakers are mobbed post-presentation by attendees who shout questions with the hopeful intensity and desperation of reporters outside Supreme Court hearings: But, look, look at this site! Is it really responsive? Can you tell me? Can you help? How do you know if it’s responsive?

As if there are authorities who can divine every nuance of our pooled sense of responsive, or that there exists somewhere an immutable stone carved with its meaning, accessible only to the elect. Or perhaps, do we hope because we feel so lost?

Even in a more prosaic and realistic sense, these discussions often presuppose several things:

  • There is a single, correct definition for “responsive” (and perhaps a nucleus of leaders consciously invented it)
  • We have control over this definition and should seek to rally the web community around it
  • We all mean the same thing when we say “responsive”

I’d gently argue against each of these premises. Instead, I believe the definition of “responsive” to be evolving, an abstract concept that eludes direct semantic policing. It’s as yet too nascent and amorphous to have a universally-accepted meaning; it’s a word whose genesis lacked unified intent. However, I do think that we are moving toward meaning the same general thing when we say something has the quality of being responsive. And therein lies hope for eventual clarity.

The one, true “responsive”

First, let’s distinguish between Responsive Web Design and “responsive.” I’m rattling on here about the latter, the adjectival form, the descriptive, little-r responsive as contrasted to Ethan Marcotte’s big-R Responsive Web Design techniques.

Ethan has consistently maintained that the definition of Responsive Web Design is constrained to the three specific techniques for making sites that adapt well across many browser environments: fluid layouts, flexible images (and media objects), and media queries. One, two, three.

As defined, then, Responsive Web Design doesn’t leave room for a lot of ambiguity (though, believe me, we have created a lot of it anyway). It’s a mechanical concept, the brainchild of a single person, based on finite, specific elements.

But RWD’s impact has been greatly informed by the conceptual notion of designing and building usable, broadly supported sites and apps now and in the future, now that we have all of those pesky devices to deal with.

Grasping around for a way to talk about this approach toward these bigger goals, we gravitated back to that seminal technique for accomplishing them. And so emerged an abstract modifier (“responsive”) from a concrete, technical noun phrase (Responsive Web Design). This isn’t surprising when you think about it—we didn’t have many other terms available on which to hang our proverbial hats.

But, as Jason and others have noted, there’s no consensus about what “responsive” means. I can tell you how to do Responsive Web Design. How we make things “responsive” is up to us. All of us.

Controlling the definition

Unlike Responsive Web Design, which is concrete and single-origin, the advent of “responsive” as describing web design was profoundly distributed. No identifiable individual first breathed life into the word; it is owned by all of us and none of us at the same time.

Language evolves, always and inexorably. In our rarified web world, it can evolve even faster. Head-spinningly fast. And the evolving meanings continually take influence from myriad, organic sources of input. So if pinning down the definition of “responsive” is hard enough, controlling it is futile.

What are we trying to say, anyway?

So what does “responsive” mean, already? At the risk of tilting toward pedantry, I’ll suggest that it means what we (collectively) think it means.

Language components—in our example, words—carry something like a tiny implicit covenant, a tacit community agreement about what each means.

Where we can go wrong here—that is, commit actual language errors in the linguistic sense of the term—is when the parties involved in communications have a different understanding of the semantic payload (and “different understanding” can include one party not knowing what something means at all). Wires get crossed, connections missed.

I think when Jason suggests that people might use “responsive” to imply certain qualities like adaptive, accessible, or device-appropriate, he’s on to something. Though consensus is nowhere near solid, there’s a tugging momentum in the term that suggests its increasing use to convey the bigger picture of the things we’re doing right while building things for the pan-device web.

Will “responsive” become redundant?

So that raises the possibility that we’re using “responsive” in certain cases to communicate…well…web design, done thoughtfully.

Think about it for a moment. Guy Podjarny’s recent research indicates about 12 percent of the top 10,000 sites are responsively designed, according to his current responsive metric (fluid layouts, primarily). That number actually blows me away, and at the least promotes responsive out of the experimental. It sort of feels like that moment when you no longer need to use a vendor prefix for a CSS property. Training wheels: off.

In any case, I think we will continue to coalesce around a greater consensus on what makes something responsive, even if it’s not the meaning we had in mind for it originally. There are common undertones to the word, even if we still skirmish over the particulars. Its meaning already seems to be drifting a bit toward describing a site or app, versus providing a strict recipe for building one.

Does that mean “responsive,” whatever the heck it means, is poised to take over the world (well, our version of the world, anyway)? Will it achieve such dominance that the adjective itself will fade over time and disappear like a vestigial tail, leaving us simply…web design?

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