Q&A: Responsive Design, Mobile Apps, and What It Means to Be a Creative Technologist

Google recently endorsed Responsive Design as its recommended configuration for smartphone-optimized sites. For one agency in Australia, the announcement has certainly been a welcome move.

Erik Hallander, interactive director at Visual Jazz Isobar based in Melbourne, has been gearing his team – “a healthy collection of 34 amazing code nerds,” as he calls them on his LinkedIn profile, during the past six months to be competent in implementing the configuration.

The Swedish exec shares his experience getting buy-in internally as well as with clients in the Q&A below:

Q: You started prepping your team about Responsive Design more than six months ago. How did you decide it was going to be important?

Erik Hallander: Any major change in a big workplace has to be driven by someone, or it ends up falling pretty flat. I had a lot of discussions with our extremely clever HTML lead and some of the senior devs about responsive design, and it very quickly became clear that no matter how you twist and turn it, the traditional “web development” approach was dying, if not dead. What really tipped the scales for me was when the Boston Globe site went live. Seeing it completely reaffirmed all our beliefs that this was the way to go.

Q: How would you define Responsive Design?

Erik Hallander: The core message here is that the fixed-width “print” style web development has to go. Responsive design is all about being device agnostic. It shouldn’t matter what device you’re using, the product needs to not only work, but look great. It’s a step away from the old school “m-sites” (which are still valid in some cases I should say) to address the plethora of devices with varying screen sizes. Instead of focusing on iPhone-iPad-Desktop, responsive design is a fluid layout approach that makes sure that no matter what screen size; you’ll have a good user experience.

Q: What were the challenges and lessons learned implementing Responsive Design internally?

Erik Hallander: It is a huge design challenge. Instead of making one or two design mock-ups, you’re looking at five to 10 very different designs that all need to be coherent, user-friendly, and maintain some sort of thematic consistency. You don’t want people to browse a site on the phone, get to the office and get a completely different “feel” of the website. It is hard to do well, but incredibly rewarding when you get it right. You kind of have to just do it. Experiment and practice.

Q: How do you get buy-in from clients on the Responsive Design workflow?

Erik Hallander: This one is a bit of a no-brainer. When you explain the approach and demonstrate the differences in experience with a traditional fixed-width site compared to one built responsive to people, they usually get it straight away. The problems usually come with processes – you have to be a bit open to working more agile with the client, and not force yourself to go through design iteration reviews. It’s all about trust and working together.

Hallander also shared what it means to be a creative technologist and his views on the Apple vs. Android development here:

Q: Describe your role as interactive director at Visual Jazz Isobar.

Erik Hallander: At VJI, all Front-End development (HTML/CSS/Javascript), mobile development (Android, iOS), and Unity/Flash falls under the “Interactive” banner. I oversee this team of over 30 people with the help of amazing discipline team leads, make sure the guys have everything they need and are happy as well as challenged. The other side of my role is very client oriented, from new business pitches and client presentations, while also applying a technical sanity filter to all the high flying ideas of our ambitious creative team. If we are falling behind from an innovation and technical expertise point of view, people will frown at me, so I try to make sure that never happens.

Q: In your role, you often have to wear the hat of a “Creative Technologist.” How do you balance these two seemingly contradictory disciplines?

Erik Hallander: I love the idea of creative technology in general. The role that’s “Creative Technologist” is something it seems almost every agency is approaching in a slightly different way. It’s asking a lot to expect all the creatives to have a complete understanding of technical challenges and/or new and interesting technology, and my role is to help drive cool tech into the already cool ideas. The best CTs are practically idea machines that keep up to date with technical trends and understand the ins and outs of all the possibilities and limitations of current technologies, and that’s a key part of my role.

Q: What’s your secret to keeping up with the latest technological innovations?

Erik Hallander: Tough question! I don’t think there is a “right” answer to that. Our entire development team is filled with people that love the gloriously geeky part of this industry. Personally I think it’s just about loving what you do. Chances are you’ll do a fair bit of experimenting, reading, and research if you’re passionate about the industry. When you start getting complacent or keep doing the same thing over and over again that’s usually a good sign of doing something wrong.

Q: Mobile apps – Apple vs. Android. From a brand marketer’s perspective, which one should they be looking at and why?

Erik Hallander: Probably Android. By now the industry should be incredibly confident in iOS as it is. Android has enormous challenges associated with it, mostly because of fragmentation and the innate differences between carrier overlays. These are issues that agencies need to deal with, but from a client/brand point of view, especially in Australia, Android needs to regain some focus. It’s not good enough to just be represented in iOS space.

Q: Name an example of an innovative use of a mobile app in Australia.

Erik Hallander: Kaching. It’s a mobile payment thing from the Australian bank CommBank. Pretty cool, and I wish we had built it.

Q: We’re now halfway through 2012. What’s another key emerging tech trend we should be looking at?

Erik Hallander: Digital interpretation methods such as OCR (converting digital text from an image into “real text”) and image recognition has matured heaps over the past year. We’re starting to see some really cool stuff in those two camps now, and the limitations we had a year or two ago are rapidly disappearing. QR codes never reached the ubiquity it has in markets such as Japan anywhere else, but the core idea of it is still really valid. We now have all the means we need to do that type of stuff but without ugly QR codes. Google Goggles is one example, and there’s plenty of AR applications that are based in solid image recognition. So I’m gonna go with that.

Related reading

A QR code which leads to the URL for the ClickZ article about QR codes. Meta.