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Responsive Design, Nimble Architecture

  |  February 1, 2012   |  Comments

Support more devices, use more context, and provide a better user experience with mobile first, responsive design, and responsive content.

I'm still recovering from CES (and the typical post-CES flu), but one thing I saw there has stuck with me. Everything that we usually ascribed to mobile devices - location-based ultrabooks and tablets are going to do for us. As notebooks and ultrabooks get more powerful, the concept of a sited, desktop computer will start to fade. When does it stop making sense to talk about your "mobile site" as separate from your "desktop site," when your desktop is now in your pocketbook? And if the new, fixed "desktop" becomes a TV, how does your site look and behave there? And how do you support all the different form factors and web browsers proliferating across those devices?

Responsive Design, Responsive Content

There's a real robust conversation happening in the UX and web designer space around design for the plethora of devices and platforms that a modern website needs to support.

You've probably heard of "mobile first." Defined by Luke Wroblewski in 2009, mobile first is a call to action to design first for the mobile experience, and then the web. Mobile is (still) exploding and provides new capabilities like location and motion to deliver richer experiences. It also drives you to focus on what's essential for the user, and be more ruthless in paring down unnecessary features and content you may have on your site "because you can." It's a framework to help you focus more strongly on user utility.

Responsive design is a way to respond to the challenge of designing and developing sites for the growing set of form factors. It's been brewing for a while in the design and development community, but hit a critical mass with Ethan Marcotte's recent book on the topic, and The Boston Globe's recent redesign using responsive design techniques. There's still robust discussion and disagreement in the community, but from the work my agency and others have done, it's proven to be a great set of techniques to help make digital properties work well across devices, and maximize our clients' return on code.

More recently, responsive content thinking has started to look at how to tailor what goes into those responsive designs so that the views make sense, all the content still hangs together, and your site's information architecture is still useful and usable across the form factors.

From an IT perspective, this is all heady stuff - first do less, then do more with less overall effort - but probably a little too heady; a little too cutting edge for it to have fully been absorbed by corporate staff. And I'm betting a little too cutting edge for the big IT outsourcing vendors, that are more invested in scalable commodity skills. It's also easy for IT staff to be a bit cynical - if it sounds like unicorns, it probably is, and we know where the horn goes. Agencies are probably a bit more up on it, focused as they are on what's happening next.

To me, there are two interesting points behind all of these ideas. First, is to point toward simplifying your web presence, and focusing on the essential, customer-valued features and content. By doing so, you end up with less to manage, more value for money, and more focus for your agency on making awesome and useful features for your customers.

The second is that these techniques also position you for future flexibility. Mobile first generally gives you more clarity and a smaller codebase. Responsive design and responsive content make supporting new devices using your existing codebase less costly. All three together lower the cost of useful change, both in development and your energy.

But how responsive to change is the rest of your marketing technology?

How Responsive Is Your Platform?

Now, no front-end magic will eliminate the cost of large changes to your underlying marketing technology platform. A new campaign strategy, a new digital product, a new CRM platform - these take unavoidable chunks of cash, time, and energy that no buzzword has yet successfully eliminated. But what you can do is make the cost of these functional or system changes lower, by consciously optimizing for them. That's an agile or nimble architecture.

An agile marketing architecture - one that embraces change, or at the very least, accommodates change - is the backbone for making all this work at scale and with a cost efficiency that makes your IT reasonably happy. Quite often, however, IT is still focused on cost containment, rather than agility, because agility is tough to measure.

A lot has been written about measuring business agility, or architecture agility, and defining metrics to measure agility are an ongoing saga. Your IT group may have something big wrapped around their IT governance processes already. Nick Malik of Microsoft has a simple one based on speed. Forrester has one more aligned to IT Enterprise Architecture practices and even academia is involved. However, as Forrester notes, it has not been widely moved from a talking point to a business capability. The key, naturally, is agreeing on what "agility" means, and putting measures around it. There's no single formula for it, but the basic concept is pretty straightforward. I like looking at costs - from that viewpoint:

Agility = (how complex the change is) / (how much effort it took)

Put another way: simple stuff should be simple - updating content should be cheap. Complex stuff, however, should be achievable: adding a new device profile should be incremental; reusing some other product manager's store finder should be simple.

I'm guessing more than a few of you are muttering "Oh, I already know what that number is, and it's a rather low number indeed." IT is naturally adverse to change until the situation is intolerable and well-understood. It costs a lot of money, and forces us to do even more stuff, and at the end, a CMS is a CMS, and it seems to work for everyone else…

So, what do you do with your bulky "common platform" marketing system, random third-party software platforms, and shrinking IT budget? You're probably already doing a lot of this in your planning exercises with IT, but it's time to raise the bar, and instead of seeing how little IT you can get away with, seeing how you can begin maximizing the capacity for change your investments are buying. The metrics are the hard part with the biggest impact, but you can start on the others independently.

  • Define your terms. First, work with your agency or IT staff to jointly define and build agility into their success metrics. Focus on your data - about how much time and effort you're putting into making change on your digital properties. There'll be resistance, but there's a natural alignment with continual process improvement efforts already underway - it's more that you need to be in those conversations, and the conversation needs to be about more than "efficiency" or cost reduction, and more about building speed into your organization. Realize this is probably going to take some sharp elbows and push. But the more you shift thinking toward your definitions of speed and utility, the better your organization will start believing it's valuable, and the more you'll be on your IT roadmaps.
  • Pare back, have a content strategy. Start thinking from a "mobile first, web second" stance, and check your analytics: what features or content with limited utility can you drop? Do you really need all that content? What are the most useful things you can provide your customers? Are you getting value from doing anything else? Do you know enough about your users to tell? What devices or form factors are on the rise, or do you want to support, like in-store or TV?

    A content strategy fuels a responsive web design. Make sure your design staff and your content providers are aligned around building for meaning on multiple form factors.
  • Plan for change. First, work with your agency or IT staff to build agility into their success metrics. Think hard about your plans for this year - are you adding commerce? More videos? Beefing up your Google+ presence? Also think about the likely ways your plans change - new devices, new content partners, syndication, etc. Finally, look around at what other brand managers are doing, and see if there's anything you'd wish you could steal from…um…"produce synergies with." Work with your developers to identify and categorize all that change into buckets of impact to your marketing platform. See if other brand managers are in the same boat. Pool your funding.
  • Services, isolation, components. Get your developers - either your agency or IT - thinking in components, if they aren't already. You can componentize at the presentation layer (call them widgets, if you must), at the services level, and at the content level. You should have a strategy at all three levels. If you don't have a services layer, have a sit-down with your IT staff and break the news to them. More devices are coming; more change is on the horizon.
  • Build responsively. If your developers haven't heard about responsive design and responsive content, ask yourself if they are the ones who are going to help maximize the utility of your campaigns and content. The more resilient and responsive to change you can make your codebase, the more change you can make.

Mobile first, responsive design, responsive content - current topics that are going to help you support more devices, use more context, and provide a better, more focused user experience to your customers. It's time your marketing technology platform was responsive to change as well.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Todd Drake

As vice president of technology for Organic, Todd enhances Organic's technology delivery capabilities and develops leading-edge concepts and solutions that support diverse client needs. With deep expertise rooted in over 20 years of technology experience and a passion for reframing tough problems and building new models of action, Todd has helped leading brands successfully leverage new technologies.

Prior to joining Organic, Todd was a director at SapientNitro where he provided technical and client leadership to a portfolio of global CPG, non-profit, and financial clients. During his tenure at SapientNitro, he worked with clients on long- and short-term technical strategy, and mentored and managed end-of-delivery activities such as load testing and quality control. Previously, Todd was a director of engineering at Grow Network/McGraw-Hill and senior technology director at Avenue A-Razorfish.

Todd received his B.S. in Computer Science from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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