How To Respond to Responsive Design:
The New Reality of the Mobile Web

By Chris Bonney

There is a new player in the game of mobile technology. It’s not a new device or operating system. Nor is it a new killer app or browser. It’s a new approach, and it’s called Responsive Web Design (RWD). Responsive Web Design has spawned from the recent popularity of tablet devices like the iPad and Google Nexus, coupled with the exponential growth of mobile phones that can access the Internet.

Associations now need to think beyond how their members will interact with their websites from their home office or work cubicle. Instead, they need to consider how their site responds to the different devices their members could be using to access the web. Did the three columns from the website convert to a readable three rows on the iPhone? Did that side navigation from the website float to the top of the screen when the user swung their iPad from landscape to portrait view? This is the world of responsive design.

Associations Are Content Distributors
The core driver of the RWD revolution is content—how it is displayed and how it is consumed. Associations’ content strategy discussions must extend beyond the homepage above the fold arguments of today and into a more complex discussion about content priorities. What organization report gets posted through what social media channel? What video should be accessible over mobile because it’s instructional and what video should be posted to Facebook because it creates engagement? What devices do we optimize for and what content should be displayed on each? Content management has left the ranks of simple administration and been promoted to a senior, strategic role that is integral to your online success.

Mobile First
This shift in user experience has lead web design firms to re-think their entire process. To gracefully degrade your site from a laptop resolution to a tablet resolution to a mobile resolution—as one might assume would be the natural progression—leads to a series of design, formatting, and layout conundrums as it turns out. Web firms now design for the mobile experience first, considering tablet and laptop layouts only after the mobile interface has been determined.

Luke Wroblewski, who coined the term "mobile first" and wrote a book of the same name, explains that by focusing on the mobile experience first, we pay attention to what really matters. Imagine only a third of your website homepage being viewable on an iPhone. What third would it be? A thought that surely sends a shudder through most association executives as they consider airing that debate at their next web committee meeting.

Why Context Matters
According to the Pew Research Center, 55% of adult mobile phone owners use the Internet on their mobile phones, while 31% of adults use mobile to access the web instead of a laptop. While these statistics clearly illuminate the future path of mobile usage, what these statistics don’t reveal is why people are using their mobile device online or, more importantly for associations, what experience do users expect over mobile that they aren’t getting currently? The answer to the call of future mobile usage then is not simply re-arranging content to fit the device, but the context in which the content is experienced.

How can associations look beyond simply emulating our website across multiple devices and provide functionality and content to our members in a way that makes sense to the situation they might happen to be in at the moment? For example, a meeting planner out in the field might need more tables for his or her event and, therefore, instant access to your member directory on his or her mobile device to find a table supplier. Or a realtor might need access to a mortgage calculator on his or her mobile device more regularly than he or she needs access to your upcoming annual conference registration. Is your conference important? Of course, but not at that moment when an event planner needs more tables or a realtor needs a calculator.

Mobile Apps
It’s a three-pronged conversation at this point. We have responsive design, the mobile web, and mobile apps. Native mobile apps have been the centerpiece of the mobile conversation for the last few years and definitely have their place, but we need to think about them through the new lens of responsive design and what it offers. The pros and cons of mobile apps have been examined at length over the past few years and the major obstacle remains: A native mobile application has to deliver on a pretty big promise for it to be successful. The hurdles around adoption, support and usage steer many associations away from making the app investment.

Not to dismiss apps’ value, event management and community applications have been quite successful mobile endeavors for associations. The deep integration with the mobile device’s operating system allows apps to be highly useful with interesting bells and whistles included. Attendees have come to expect to download an app when they attend an event, so the usual hurdles to finding and downloading an app are eliminated. Sponsorship of apps has also proved a profit center for many associations.

It’s a Strategic Decision
The key to mobile web design is to not let technology lead your marketing. Thomas Husson from Forrester Research puts it best: "The mobile web and apps offer different benefits and serve different audiences." The mobile web versus mobile application debate still has legs and will for a while longer, but the impact of creating responsive websites that display across all devices is less of a debate and more of a new reality that must be accounted for immediately. It’s possible to retrofit a responsive design into your existing website, but redesigning a new site with the mobile first approach ensures you’ve got a scalable and flexible site for the future.

So, take a look at your website on a few different devices. Then take a look at a site (like the responsive design-friendly Boston Globe website and see what’s possible. This is the experience your members expect and deserve in 2014 and beyond. What will your organization do this year to make it happen?

Chris Bonney is the vice president of client experience at Vanguard Technology, a web development firm with offices in Chicago, Illinois, and Washington, DC, serving associations exclusively, and can be reached through the company’s website at