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Tech Talk Live Blog

What? It’s Not a Responsive Web Application? Lessons Learned in User Interface Development

Margie Morales


These days if a site is available on the web, the expectation may be that it delivers an app like experience on mobile and tablet devices. For the most part, I am one of those people, even though I am fully aware of the complexities that go on behind the scenes. Who does not want to have information and function easily available at one’s fingertips? In a recent project, I learned that there are many factors that come into play for deciding to not go the responsive route, not create a separate mobile site, or not implement device or viewport specific CSS.

Around six years or so ago, responsive web design appeared on the scene as the trending thing to do. It still sort of is. In those days I was mostly involved with administration, content management, and some design; therefore, I was able to easily get a hosting service, set up a WordPress site pretty quickly, and slap on a responsive theme for $39. Voilà I was done! The difference, in my experience from then and now, is that then I was working on a website, not web applications.  The client-server model is the key difference about which I am talking.

Recently, I was at my first meeting for a custom web application development project. My main role for the project involved client side development dealing mostly with the layout, markup, and CSS of the html generated by ASP.NET.  Our team sat down to brainstorm, do data modeling, flowchart the business process, etc. While markers were changing hands and big ideas surfaced, I sat there questioning how I was going to get all of this data centric content in a user-friendly, user interface. Was I supposed to get this working on multiple devices? Three large whiteboards later we had a starting plan.

At the next meeting we did some storyboarding and had some user interface discussions where we ultimately decided that only the public interface would need to be responsive. This subdued my concerns since that was more doable than trying to do a mobile first design on the administration part of the web application. Our development team did not come to this decision lightly. We talked through what percentage of users would be using the admin side of the application and their likelihood of trying to access the site on a mobile device.

Without question, when I began working on the user interface of the admin side of the project, it was a joy to not have to worry about responsiveness for mobile. The lesson learned for me is that pros and cons need to be weighed out completely when deciding how to implement a user interface for a web application. In this project’s case the users’ way of working and the pros of time and effort savings outweighed the cons of not having a responsive administration site.

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