What We Mean When We Say “responsive”

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”#section1

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#section2

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?#section3

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?#section4

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?

27 Reader Comments

  1. I think we might be moving towards a world where rather than stating that a particular site is “responsive” as praise, we’ll instead be stating that a site is “unresponsive” when we notice that it is unable to adapt to whatever strange form factor of device we may be using next.
    (my bank site is unresponsive; I have to pan and zoom all over the place on my phone)

  2. Being a web developer who builds sites that other designers design, I’ve always thought that what was needed was more flexibility in the designs. I don’t want to say I was thinking responsive before it was cool because Ethan’s implementation was light years ahead of what I was thinking. But I’ve always thought that ‘responsive’ meant just that, the design responds to the environment it is in. It’s flexible and usable anywhere. Things don’t break because the user isn’t doing what the designer expected. Whether it’s a different device or odd user preferences (larger fonts in my case), the site/app is still usable.

    I was talking with one of the designers I work with the other day about RWD and I kept saying ‘responsible’ instead of ‘responsive’. I think that’s what the whole ‘responsive’ movement has meant to me, how I internalized the word ‘responsive’, as just doing what’s right.

  3. Thank you for this. I’ve finally made the leap into RWD, but the greater notion of responsive as a general topic that is fluid itself and warrants ongoing, constructive and respective dialogue can’t be understated. I especially cheer the evolution both you and Calvin Walton suggest where ‘Responsive’ goes the way of ‘World Wide’; it’s simply ‘web design’ for the ‘web’. And ‘unresponsive’ sites are about as useful as 8-track cassettes; only one device can play them so they’ll eventually become extinct.
    Cheers to you for continuing the conversation.

  4. Great post! I have heard some people say that the term “responsive” is redundant because “everything is responsive now.” I’m not so sure – I also hear people dismissing responsive as something “you mobile people are always talking about.” I personally think we have a ways to go in promoting the importance of mobile platforms and the role that responsive design plays there.

  5. I say that there’s a problem with the word itself. 90% of my clients think that “responsive” means “fast”. A lot of the times they come back and tell me that their site is not “responsive” and I have to explain to them again and again what Responsive Web Design means. They get really confused and they feel cheated.

  6. In a way, we as practitioners should use coding and design techniques to “respond” to what is being used by the human viewers of the content. They’re using these certain browsers, on these types of computers and devices, and we have to markup our designs in a way that works across “all” of them that we know of, and into the unknown future. Fluid, flexible, querying — all terms not just for the responsive technology, but also for us as designers and developers to think of ourselves as completely responsive to the needs and goals of the users. And, the idea of “responsive” being different in some way than overall “web design” will be short-lived, I think. A necessary distinction initially to provide us with a new armature to work within, but if we do our work correctly, it will be a default method from here on.

  7. Guys, guys, it’s not that hard, you’re just confusing yourselves! I think you’re trying to put “responsive” as a tick on a box that someone is selling, and that’s where you’re getting yourselves tied into knots. A client comes up and says they want their website to be responsive, give you a bunch of money, and you have to deliver that.

    The word “responsive” should be put into the same boat as “performant”. Imagine if someone said “hey we want to give you money to make our website “performant”. This isn’t an “either or”, and it isn’t an “I know it when I see it”. It’s shades of grey towards an acceptable goal — we want to get to a point where everyone can easily access your website no matter what browser and device they view it on (even the ones that haven’t been invented yet).

    And since I’m among friends I’m going to state something a little controversial: “responsive” is just a sexed up word for “accessible”. The only difference is that you don’t have to think about blind people and feel powerless to help them. Instead you think “Hey! I have a mobile and a desktop! I can totally feel my way around this problem!” It’s a level of “accessibility” that everyone can benefit from, so it gets way more attention.

    The question is: “How do people get the most from your site no matter who they are or how they choose to view it.” The answer isn’t easy, but it is straightforward.

  8. Very interesting read, especially because I (as a mere end user) was apparently completely wrong about the meaning of “responsive”. I only surf the webz through my desktop computer, so as it was mentioned above, I thought of it more like “fast” or “dynamic”. English is not my first language, but I feel “flexible” or “modular” would be a better word for the meaning the article describes.

  9. Fab article Lyza – articulate and relevant.

    Hey, Sunny Kalsi – Controversial comment! I love it. “responsive” is just a sexed up word for “accessible”. Slightly contentious yes, but for all the right reasons I think. 🙂

    I have always tried to explain to people that accessibility is about giving the user options – options that are best suited to their needs and their technology choices. Sounds somewhat like a brief for a responsive site… But I think it’s still important to note that being responsive doesn’t mean you are automatically accessible. I think they pull in a similar direction and responsive can be a great start for accessibility (if you’re working to web standards and progressive enhancement etc); but you still need to wear your accessibility hat and design for inclusion as being responsive doesn’t address how you use colour, images or whether you’ve adequately described your content on the page. The main thing “responsive” and “accessibility” have in common is that broader concept of responding to the user’s needs.

  10. I suspect the qualities that we are looking for – an ability to detect and respond to changing circumstances – are generally known as “intelligence”. But we can’t refer to it as Intelligent Design because someone got there first.

  11. This is a problem of our own making. The fact that Lyza and Grigs have written these articles is proof of that. We’re now trying to find ways to clarify something that never should have needed it.

    I never had a client ask for a “table-based web site”, or a “float-based web site” or a “absolute/relative/fixed/static positioned web site”, so why are they asking for “responsive web site?” Because we conflated this single technique with the idea that it was the complete answer for web design, that’s why.

    I’m convinced that if Ethan had never given this technique a name that we would not need to be having these conversations. If this technique had been added to Dan Cederholm’s Bulletproof Web Web Design book we’d all just as likely be doing it but would have no need to debate “what is responsive web design?”, we’d be debating “is this a good/useful/usable/desirable web design that I can access from any device?” When you get right down to it that’s what RWD in conjunction with other techniques aims to do.

    I’d much rather be talking about “Bulletproof Web Design” (BWD) or “Progressive Enhancement Web Design” (PEWD), since RWD is really a subset of these concepts.

  12. “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

    In the end it’s the end-user who’s making the decision of whether a site is ‘responsive’ or not and it has little to do with design paradigms or frameworks or whatever the new buzzword bingo winner is.

    When a client says ‘I want a responsive site’ they are saying: “Does this website let me do what I want to do without getting in my way?”

    HOW they get there is the designer’s job.

    Speed is probably the most prominent part (because a fast site will cover a multitude of UI sins) but hardly the only one. They don’t care *how* you do it, just that you do it.

    The answer is understanding the end users desires and workflow…how they approach solving the problem that is your web site.

    Like Justice Potter, users may have a hard time defining ‘responsiveness’, but certainly know it when they see it.

    If they have to be told that “No, despite what the evidence of your lying eyes tells you, this IS a Responsive Design”…you’re doing it wrong, both describing it to your client AND producing the end product.

  13. I’ve always thought that the word “adaptive” was more correct to use as the design adapts to the device its in.

    The word “responsive” when describing something has a very different meaning as it’s more about telling hos fast or how well the device is responding to user input.

  14. Great piece Lyza! It is becoming less of a bolt-on and more of a native function. This reminds me of the concept of “social media”. The web is becoming more inherently social and the term holding less significance.

  15. I’m a fan of Tim Kaldec’s response to Jason Grigsby’s original post. Responsive design is a technique, but part of a larger toolbox of good design along with accessibility, optimized file sizes and the like.

  16. I really can’t see any merit in discussing the semantics of “responsive”. This is a fairly new concept to me, and it made perfect sense to me the first time I read about it. I didn’t feel the need to define and dissect the nuances of every particular interpretation. Surely, the practical application of optimising the presentation of a website for different devices or screen sizes is where it starts and ends. That’s it.

    I’m afraid to say that the style of writing in this article is also very frustrating. It could be written with quarter of the words, and probably impart the same meaning in a much more succinct way. Sometimes less is definitely more.

  17. “I was talking with one of the designers I work with the other day about RWD and I kept saying ‘responsible’ instead of ‘responsive’. I think that’s what the whole ‘responsive’ movement has meant to me, how I internalized the word ‘responsive’, as just doing what’s right.” – Edward Vermillion

    I like what you said here Edward, because it’s so true. ‘ Responsive’ is simply ‘responsible’. If a website is not ‘responsive’, it’s simply not acceptable. There is a specific standard of quality that should always be meet, and responsiveness is one aspect that must always be achieved.

  18. What most people mean when they say responsive web design is “I read it somewhere and I want it to sound like I know what I’m talking about. It looks funny on my PC. I use Internet Explorer 5.5…”

  19. I agree with Mark Collins. These ongoing semantic arguments are tiresome like an itch on the bottom of my foot while driving. It boils down to thoughtful design, which I think includes being accessible to various groups of users as well as usable regardless of device. I was expecting to read about thoughtful techniques (that most of us lump into that term “responsive”) but instead found myself two thirds of the way through realizing this was about how to put labels on this vs. that, i.e. Responsive vs. responsive, kinda disappointing to be honest.

  20. Excellent post, and thank you for putting my thoughts into words. I’ll reference your great article in an upcoming conference (in Danish), where I’ll be giving a small talk on responsive design.

  21. It’s funny, although this is a relatively old article I believe that Calvin really hit the nail on the head in terms of web standards and responsive becoming the new normal. Aside from the conundrum if it is a term that describes a pattern of behavior or if it is a specific behavior in it of itself, I believe that a big problem in defining what we mean when we say ‘responsive’ is that there isn’t the conditional exclusion of the term ‘adaptive’ or any of its subsets. This article describes in a bit more detail what I am reaching for and the differentiation of responsive and adaptive: http://www.webydo.com/blog/web-design/adaptive-web-design/adaptive-web-design-vs-responsive-web-design-what-are-the-differences/

  22. I am web developer. For me “responsive” word mean mobile phones. Because we are making a mobile-friendly designs. Each resolution of sensitive design “responsive” are called.

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