The Tenets of Responsible Web Design

In my previous post I introduced the concept of Responsible Web Design, which transcends any particular design methodology and is rather a holistic approach to ensuring that web content is delivered effectively to all audiences and mediums. It’s no secret that over the course of the past decade we, as designers and developers, have been doing our best to make content work across browsers. But, we’ve ignored our responsibility to support all devices or the fringe users of our sites. It’s time for that to change.

1. Supporting Accessibility is no longer an option.

As unfortunate as it is, most in the web industry hardly consider making the extra effort to make their websites or applications accessible. The lack of support for the physically disabled, as well as fringe case users (e.g., on the web, users with javascript disabled) is completely unprecedented in other areas of our daily life. Offline, businesses have braille signs, ramps next to stairs, and audio queues for interactions. Online, you’ll be lucky to find a site that you can resize the text of without the whole thing going to hell.

It’s time for us to educate ourselves. Read the WCAG 2.0 standards, learn about WAI-ARIA and how to implement it, prioritize semantic markup so when CSS or JS are disabled everything still makes sense. Schedule this development time into your estimates. You shouldn’t say, “Well if we make the site accessible it will take an extra week/month/quarter to do.” You should say, “This is going to take X amount of time,” and accessibility should be as standard as supporting IE’s quirks. It’s no longer good enough to just make the site look like you want it.

2. Progressive Enhancement comes standard

When Ethan Marcotte stirred the beehive with his introduction to Responsive Web Design, others such as Aaron Gustafson and Brad Frost discussed taking it further with Adaptive Web Design. Supporting and optimizing content experiences across a monstrous device landscape is no easy feat, but it’s a feat users expect you to accomplish. Everyone is excited to access the web from their new internet-enabled device and you don’t want to disappoint them when you give them some excuse for why you’re a bad developer.

Make sure business owners understand that you’re extending the reach of their influence by supporting more users. Bring your User Experience and Marketing teams together to execute the concepts of Karen McGrane’s Content Strategy for Mobile. Have your front and back-end teams work together to implement an amazing experience for everyone, not just the privileged few. We can make the web friendly to all devices, it just takes the right perspective and planning.

3. Intuitive for new web users

Everyone uses the internet, right? Wrong. Only about 32% of the Earth’s population uses the internet. But guess what? 8 new internet users join us every second, which is over 20 million each month. With that said the internet can be a crazy, confusing place for someone who hasn’t been on it for several years.

This is part of the reason why skeuomorphic design has become such a hot topic and giants such as Apple have implemented its concepts in a variety of their applications. When done wrong, it’s an awful abomination that causes confusion and hatred, but when done right you may get something as intuitive and loved as the common calculator app.

Regardless of what design principles you adhere to, user testing is important. Does your site, its content, and its workflows resonate with your audience? If it’s an internal tool, get your business owners engaged at a regular interval for testing. If it’s a website, find users to test a working wireframe early in the process and iterate on it. Get it into the browser as soon as possible and get it in front of people. You may know the web better than anyone else, but you’re not using your product, other people are.


Everything I’ve listed above are things that an elite few have been doing for years. The problem for the industry as a whole is that Responsible Web Design has been an À la carte add-on to the development process. Building contractors don’t say, “Oh, you wanted handrails? Well that is going to be an extra X days and Y dollars.” If someone wants stairs built, they know it comes with a handrail because it’s stupid not to have them. If someone wants a website or app built, it should come with the tenets of Responsible Web Design. It’s part of the package that we as web industry professionals should deliver, standard. It isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s the only thing to do.