Responsive Web Design and the Acceptability Threshold: What You Should Know

2012 will be remembered as the year the mobile web emerged. In support of this bold proclamation, a recent survey found that the share of smartphones has surpassed the 50% mark in the US. If you own or manage a website for your business or organization it is imperative that you invest in the mobile user experience. Enter Responsive Web Design, a new approach to building websites that optimizes the user experience across all platforms and devices. RWD truly is an elegant solution to a complex problem in that it addresses the need for accessibility using a single-source of data. The concept and drudgery of having to create multiple versions of a website is now as dated as the VHS.

Responsive-web-design

But before making the decision to go all out RWD be forewarned – although indeed an elegant solution it does not imply that it is a perfect one. In order to embrace RWD you must accept the concept of Acceptability Threshold.

Acceptability Threshold

This concept acknowledges the reality that RWD comes with certain inherent headaches.  Although RWD enhances the user experience across multiple mobile devices, thereby greatly increasing usability and visitor satisfaction, it can also lead to imperfections, particularly in regards to what we call the ‘in-between’ views. The concept of ‘pixel-perfect’ must be thrown out the window – the days of Flash-based control of display are gone forever. Instead, site owners must first understand and then embrace the acceptability threshold.

OK, so what exactly is the acceptability threshold? Let’s define it:

Acceptability Threshold: The minimum level of acceptance of imperfection a website owner will tolerate in order to market the site with maximum confidence.

Not making sense? Think about acceptability threshold as a percentage. We all desire the things we buy to be 100% perfection at the time of the purchase. After all, it is common sense that we will not drive off the car lot with the doors missing (unless you are into that kind of thing) or move into a new home while the roof is still under construction. But would you accept that car if the satellite radio was not yet activated? Would you go ahead and move your family into that house if the landscaping crew was still laying sod in the backyard? The question is, what will you accept? What is your acceptability threshold for making such decisions?

A Website by perception is no different. Yet it is completely different. Often times, we see the unfounded belief that a website cannot launch until everything is 100% completed. Again, this makes sense in regards to obvious concerns. Does it function? Do the pages load? Do the images display? Are there obvious errors or typos. From a traditional desktop-only viewpoint, the acceptability threshold was fairly straightforward – a website is either done or it is not. A solid QA process was the solution. Do a little cross-browser compatibility testing, content review, load testing, W3C and 508 compliance testing and you’re good to go. But with RWD, things are not so black and white.

For starters, the fact that RWD sites are built using a grid ensures that that the website will display differently on different devices. Although this is the greatest benefit of RWD it can also be its biggest weakness. The layouts of responsive web designs are mostly fluid which is why designers do not have much control on how the ‘in-between’ design will look like. Also, it is quite time consuming for the designers to display all the replicas in advance.  Designers do their best to show both wireframes and mock-ups for multiple layouts i.e., smartphone, tablet and desktop. If the layouts are approved, only then is the responsive web designing strategy is implemented.

disadvantages of responsive web design

Secondly, the constant updates to browsers, API’s and operating systems, pose a particular challenge for designers and developers working with RWD. Your new RWD site might look awesome on most browsers when it launches, but ignore version updates and before you know it you will be hearing from Sally in sales that the site is not looking too hot on her Blackberry.

Third, factor in the staggering proliferation of mobile devices entering the marketplace created by several manufacturers using competing operating systems and you can begin to see how quality assurance can become an ongoing challenge. Here at DeepBlue, we have multiple devices that we use to test RWD – everything from an 80″ HDTV, Mac desktops & laptops, a few pc’s, iPads (iPad 1 & 3), Nook, Kindle Fire, and of course, iPhones (4, 4s and 5) and other Android based phones. RWD is every bit an art as it is a science. We literally test all of the afore-mentioned devices to ensure that the experience is optimal for each device. Sometimes we miss things (yes, we are human). I got a call recently from a client irate about discovering that their new RWD site was not displaying properly on the iPhone 5 in landscape mode using Chrome mobile browser v2.0. Although the fix was simple it required somebody to actually visit the site using an iPhone 5 under those specific conditions to discover the issue in the first place (reminds me of the tree falling in the forrest and making a sound story). The fact is, no one thought about it until somebody stumbled upon it. This occurrence made me ponder projections into the future. What will happen when somebody visits the website using the new iPad mini and there are some display issues? Despite the fact that the site was launched well ahead of the iPad mini’s announcement, it is not inconceivable – nay, it is almost predictable – that I will get that call in the weeks to come. After all, the promise of RWD is that it creates the ideal user experience for ALL devices. Right? Yes. No. Maybe.

RWD is an exciting evolution in web development in the mobile era, but it is not perfect. The solution for website managers is to ensure that their site is consistently tested ongoing and that their acceptability threshold remains consistent. A rule of thumb I like to use is 95%, meaning that the website displays optimally on at least 95% of all devices and view modes. To insist on 100% is simply not practical, and in a way it defeats the purpose of RWD in the first place. Understand the acceptability threshold.  Live it, love it, earn it.

reality

 Responsive Web Design requires acceptance of imperfection. The acceptability threshold manages the degree of imperfection.

Frank Farris

Frank Farris is Founder and CEO of DeepBlue. He has been an active thought leader in the application of emerging web technologies since 1998 and is a champion of the movement to make the Responsive Web Design approach the new industry standard.

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