Designing for Any Device

Kevin Richardson, Ph.D. / Monday, November 04, 2013

What follows is a primer for the professional who has been tasked with creating a web site or application that may be accessed via multiple devices (aka responsive design). Whether you are a product manager, user experience professional, designer or developer, follow these guidelines and your users will thank you.

Regardless of the platform(s), you must:

  1. Understand the technical requirements
  2. Understand the business requirements
  3. Understand the user requirements

Note that user requirements are morethan a list of new features and functionality! User requirements must include an understanding of how users work and what they are trying to accomplish through their interaction with the artifact you are creating. These include a user’s goals, their known/stated requirements as well as their latent requirements (i.e., requirements that users don’t realize they have). User requirements also include any device-specific constraints (physical or technological) that impact a user’s ability to interact with your artifact.

Informational or Marketing Web Sites

If a responsive design is your goal and the artifact is a straightforward informational or marketing web site, it is sufficient to focus primarilyon 1 and 2 above. Here is why:

  • Informational and marketing web site designs are well understood and have become commoditized. Care to guess the percentage of web sites today that were created using WordPress? The site w3techs.com puts the number at 20.4% of all existing web sites. It remains the task of the UX or design professional to determine the information architecture (a well understood process) but the “problem” of overall site layout, usability and design for simple sites has been largely solved.
  • The goal of such sites is to make all content available under all device constraints (though the device-specific prioritization of such content remains an important task that is routinely ignored).
  • Most importantly, device-specific design and layout decisions are made programmatically in order to support the goal of “one design to fit them all”.

Complex Transactional Web Sites or Business Applications

If a responsive design is your goal and the artifact is a complex, transactional web site or business application, following #3 above becomes critical. In this case, there are multiple sets of task- and device-specific requirements that need to be implemented. Here is why:

  • A user’s expectations, goals and tasks will vary as they move between physical environments.
  • A user’s expectations, goals and tasks will vary as they move between physical devices.
  • It is almost certainly nota requirement of the user to have all content available under all device constraints. Device-specific prioritization of content is critical.
  • Specific designs are required to match specific user requirements on specific devices.

In other words, tasks and processes that may be well-supported in an office environment may be completely inappropriate if translated verbatim to a non-office environment, regardless of device. This isn’t simply a matter of knowing what content to hide or expose. Depending on situational requirements, certain tasks may be done differently, incompletely or not at all. Key to creating an application that alwayssupports users is understanding how and when a user’s requirements change.

Responsive design is a misnomer. It is a development technique. There are no such shortcuts to good design.


Kevin Richardsonhas been working in the area of user experience for over 20 years. With an advanced degree in Cognitive Psychology, he has experience across business verticals in the fields of research, evaluation, design and management of innovative, user-centered solutions.

Kevin’s experience includes web sites, portals and dashboards, enterprise software and custom business applications for medical, pharmaceutical, communications, entertainment, energy, transportation and government users.

On the weekends, you can find Kevin on his motorcycle, riding for Infragistics Racingat a number of different racetracks on the East coast.

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