ISOJ: Responsive web design promises better user experience but challenges for advertisers

00:12 Tuesday Apr 23, 2013


Anyone who has tried to open their local newspaper’s website on a smartphone already knows what responsive web design is, or rather, what it should be.

Responsive web design, or RWD, aims to create the optimal viewing experience for websites across multiple devices, from desktops to smartphones.

“The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed,” William Gibson famously said and the same goes for RWD. While a few newspapers and other publications in the United States have gone “responsive,” most notably The Boston Globe in 2011, many news organizations have been slow to adapt to the new structure. WordPress and tumblr, however, already have RWD-enable templates and Mashable called 2013 the “Year of Responsive Web Design.”

A panel at the International Symposium on Online Journalism on Friday afternoon, April 19, discussed RWD and what it means for users and advertisers.

Panelist Michael Donohoe, product engineer director at Quartz, boiled it down to width: at its most basic RWD adjusts the width of the content or advertisement to match any screen on which the user sees it. By adjusting the width of the content it becomes much more enjoyable to read or interact with the news on a mobile device.

“Mobile is an idea, it’s not a specific size or device,” said panelist Miranda Mulligan, executive director of the Northwestern University Knight Lab, and former design director for digital at The Boston Globe when it moved to RWD. Mulligan said that content on the Internet is fluid and news organizations need to be sure their readers can get the same experience everywhere.

But isn’t this what an app is for? True, iOS and Android applications certainly customize news content for specific devices, but that’s just repeating the initial trouble with conventional website design: content has to be continuously adapted to different devices as they hit the market. Ideally, RWD allows the media to publish their news without worrying about if the user can view it.

“We want responsive because we want our content on as many platforms as possible,” said Texas Tribune Technology director Travis Swicegood.

Advertisements and RWD

A major theme that emerged during the panelists’ talks was advertising and its current limits with RWD. The Interactive Advertising Bureau, an advertising industry standards organization, was roundly bashed for not doing more to help news organizations adapt their advertising to RWD. Because the current ad standards are based on fixed-size advertisements, they don’t translate well to the flexible bounds of RWD.

After venting about the hurdles of advertising, all the panelists agreed that it was still important. “The ad experience should be serious, it shouldn’t be a second thought,” said Trei Brundrett, Vox Media vice president of product and technology, noting that advertising still drives the majority of online media. Brundrett said it was up to publishers to “own” advertising if they wanted to take it in a new direction.

Some are already doing it. Donohoe and Brundrett said that Quartz and Vox Media have in-house talent that design advertisements tailored to the look and feel of their respective publications. Panel chair Roger Black harkened back to the days when this was standard practice at many print newspapers.

What’s next?

Swicegood offered some musing about what to expect when the future of RWD gets a little more evenly distributed. Specifically, he wondered how RWD could be used to tailor content for readers based on where and when they access content. A reader in Houston, for example, might get news that affects the Gulf area before news about other parts of Texas.

By Zach Dyer  Posted at 2013-04-19 19:13


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