As part of her research to write Behind the Grid: What’s the Big Deal About Responsive Web Design, Anyway? Georgy Cohen spoke with Matt Klawitter, associate director of digital communications in the Office of Alumni Relations and Development at Northwestern University. We’re pleased to present their full conversation on Link and on MattKlawitter.com
Are responsive web design (RWD), adaptive web design, and the like overhyped? Why should we care?
I don’t believe that RWD is overhyped because it makes sense. It’s ideal for a website to adapt its layout to the viewing environment or device. We will never control how, when, or where a visitor will access a website, so it is imperative that it work in all contexts. I value the concept of RWD because it respects the importance of content and accessibility.
However, I do think there is anxiety in the industry that unless your website is RWD that it is somehow broken or inadequate. RWD is a popular subject at most conferences and may perhaps be the most dominant topic of conversation since “mobile.”
I believe you can’t call a website a success or a failure based on whether it’s RWD, but you can do so by looking at its content. That is, you can have a wildly successful non-RWD website if your content is solid. The opposite is not true, unfortunately. You cannot have a successful RWD website if your content is poor.
How is higher ed scaling up to be able to execute RWD? What’s working? What’s not yet in place?
Some organizations are focused on hiring and/or training staff for RWD. More commonly, web teams are initiating the learning of RWD on their own through a process of organic growth not led top-down by management. This is not a new situation. The same thing happened years ago when the concept of “web standards” emerged and table-based web development was excluded from best practices. In fact, higher educational institutions have struggled for almost a decade to determine the best balance of building up internal staff versus paying vendors for services. Right now both vendors and internal teams are new to RWD so there really is no easy way to simply acquire RWD. Everyone is learning, so the process of becoming a team that can do RWD is costly and time-intensive.
How do you think RWD will change how web teams work?
RWD champions content. It strengthens the imperative that designers and developers must work closely with content producers. This is good. It makes me so proud to see the industry grow in this direction. Anything that brings content, design, and development closer makes the industry stronger. RWD encourages writers to understand the dynamism of the environments in which digital content is consumed, it forces designers to be agile, and challenges developers to never settle for a fixed definition of the web.
How much of the challenge in deciding whether or not to embrace RWD is about technology vs. Resources vs. Organizational change/will vs. Something else?
RWD is time and money, supply and demand. Just like anything else. If you are going to pay for it right now, the costs will be somewhere around a 25% premium. And, you have to be knowledgeable enough to know to ask for it and to understand its value. Bottom line is that if you are going to pay for it, you still have to understand what it means. Conversely, hiring a new person who knows RWD comes with an appropriate salary increase while supporting the training of existing staff requires an investment of time and money. Obviously, there are opportunity costs associated with team members learning new skills while other projects need attention.
It seems that the movement toward RWD etc. Is not so much about new technology as it is finding a way to keep up with the ever-shifting digital landscape. How do we 1) do this and 2) advocate the need to do this to the powers that be? What are the challenges, and how do we tackle them?
Great question. Just great. I could go on and on about this question alone. This question almost clearly defines my career in digital and higher education. There will always be changes. This makes the industry what it is — dynamic. There is always room for new thinking, methods, opinions, and definitions. But, we will always have users — people who visit, read, and use the websites that we create. If we are focused on the user at all times, and never stray, the industry will remain strong and vibrant. RWD is all about the user, so it passes my test. Organizational leaders need to make a decision: do we want to be on the leading edge of digital communications defining the standards for the industry or do we want to replicate best practices, follow others’ lead and learn from their mistakes. Or, if all else fails, do we want to write big checks for someone else to do it for us? Some organizations strive for excellence and love to take risks. Others want to be conservative and wait to follow trends. And some others are good at just writing a check. Figure out which one you are, then you will know if you need to advocate for more staff, training, or more vendor money.
It’s RWD today, and it’ll be something else tomorrow. Why scale up to RWD and the like when something new will just disrupt that approach in a year or two?
Great digital teams are themselves responsive. They adapt. The most successful digital teams right now were built when some other method was the norm. They made the transition to RWD because it suits their nature and the digital culture they’ve created. I believe that creating responsive (not just RWD-capable) web teams comes with nurturing talent, making good hires, and committing to a standard of excellence. If you look closely, the websites in higher education that have RWD likely have a history of success and a culture of excellence. Scale up to that kind of culture, not to a particular technology.