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First time accepted submitter faffod writes "Coming from a background of console development, where memory management is a daily concern, I found it interesting that there was any doubt that memory management on a constrained system, like a mobile device, would be a concern. Drew Crawford took the time to document his thoughts, and though there is room for some bikesheding, overall it is spot on. Plus it taught me what bikeshedding means."

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Hugh Pickens DOT Com writes "Computer Scientist Daniel Lemire has had an interesting discussion going on at his site about the ideas in software that are universally recognized as useful. 'Let me put it this way: if you were to meet a master of software programming, what are you absolutely sure he will recommend to a kid who wants to become a programmer?' Lemire's list currently includes structured programming; Unix and its corresponding philosophy; database transactions; the 'relational database;' the graphical user interface; software testing; the most basic data structures (the heap, the hash table, and trees) and a handful of basic algorithms such as quicksort; public-key encryption and cryptographic hashing; high-level programming and typing; and version control. 'Maybe you feel that functional and object-oriented programming are essential. Maybe you think that I should include complexity analysis, JavaScript, XML, or garbage collection. One can have endless debates but I am trying to narrow it down to an uncontroversial list.' Inspired by Lemire, Philip Reames has come up with his own list of 'Things every practicing software engineer should aim to know.'"

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Original author: 
Lars Kappert

  

We are talking and reading a lot about responsive Web design (RWD) these days, but very little attention is given to Web applications. Admittedly, RWD still has to be ironed out. But many of us believe it to be a strong concept, and it is here to stay. So, why don’t we extend this topic to HTML5-powered applications? Because responsive Web applications (RWAs) are both a huge opportunity and a big challenge, I wanted to dive in.

Building a RWA is more feasible than you might think. In this article, we will explore ideas and solutions. In the first part, we will set up some important concepts. We will build on these in the second part to actually develop a RWA, and then explore how scalable and portable this approach is.

Part 1: Becoming Responsible

Some Lessons Learned

It’s not easy to admit, but recently it has become more and more apparent that we don’t know many things about users of our websites. Varying screen sizes, device features and input mechanisms are pretty much RWD’s reasons for existence.

From the lessons we’ve learned so far, we mustn’t assume too much. For instance, a small screen is not necessarily a touch device. A mobile device could be over 1280 pixels wide. And a desktop could have a slow connection. We just don’t know. And that’s fine. This means we can focus on these things separately without making assumptions: that’s what responsiveness is all about.

Progressive Enhancement

The “JavaScript-enabled” debate is so ’90s. We need to optimize for accessibility and indexability (i.e. SEO) anyway. Claiming that JavaScript is required for Web apps and, thus, that there is no real need to pre-render HTML is fair (because SEO is usually not or less important for apps). But because we are going responsive, we will inherently pay a lot attention to mobile and, thus, to performance as well. This is why we are betting heavily on progressive enhancement.

Responsive Web Design

RWD has mostly to do with not knowing the screen’s width. We have multiple tools to work with, such as media queries, relative units and responsive images. No matter how wonderful RWD is conceptually, some technical issues still need to be solved.

start-image_mini
Not many big websites have gone truly responsive since The Boston Globe. (Image credits: Antoine Lefeuvre)

Client-Side Solutions

In the end, RWD is mostly about client-side solutions. Assuming that the server basically sends the same initial document and resources (images, CSS and JavaScript) to every device, any responsive measures will be taken on the client, such as:

  • applying specific styles through media queries;
  • using (i.e. polyfilling) <picture> or @srcset to get responsive images;
  • loading additional content.

Some of the issues surrounding RWD today are the following:

  • Responsive images haven’t been standardized.
  • Devices still load the CSS behind media queries that they never use.
  • We lack (browser-supported) responsive layout systems (think flexbox, grid, regions, template).
  • We lack element queries.

Server-Side Solutions: Responsive Content

Imagine that these challenges (such as images not being responsive and CSS loading unnecessarily) were solved on all devices and in all browsers, and that we didn’t have to resort to hacks or polyfills in the client. This would transfer some of the load from the client to the server (for instance, the CMS would have more control over responsive images).

But we would still face the issue of responsive content. Although many believe that the constraints of mobile help us to focus, to write better content and to build better designs, sometimes it’s simply not enough. This is where server-side solutions such as RESS and HTTP Client Hints come in. Basically, by knowing the device’s constraints and features up front, we can serve a different and optimized template to it.

Assuming we want to COPE, DRY and KISS and stuff, I think it comes down to where you want to draw the line here: the more important that performance and content tailored to each device is, the more necessary server-side assistance becomes. But we also have to bet on user-agent detection and on content negation. I’d say that this is a big threshold, but your mileage may vary. In any case, I can see content-focused websites getting there sooner than Web apps.

Having said that, I am focusing on RWAs in this article without resorting to server-side solutions.

Responsive Behavior

RWD is clearly about layout and design, but we will also have to focus on responsive behavior. It is what makes applications different from websites. Fluid grids and responsive images are great, but once we start talking about Web applications, we also have to be responsive in loading modules according to screen size or device capability (i.e. pretty much media queries for JavaScript).

For instance, an application might require GPS to be usable. Or it might contain a large interactive table that just doesn’t cut it on a small screen. And we simply can’t set display: none on all of these things, nor can we build everything twice.

We clearly need more.

Part 2: Building RWAs

To quickly recap, our fundamental concepts are:

  • progressive enhancement,
  • responsive design,
  • responsive behavior.

Fully armed, we will now look into a way to build responsive, context-aware applications. We’ll do this by declaratively specifying modules, conditions for loading modules, and extended modules or variants, based on feature detection and media queries. Then, we’ll dig deeper into the mechanics of dependency injection to see how all of this can be implemented.

Declarative Module Injection

We’ll start off by applying the concepts of progressive enhancement and mobile first, and create a common set of HTML, CSS and JavaScript for all devices. Later, we’ll progressively enhance the application based on content, screen size, device features, etc. The foundation is always plain HTML. Consider this fragment:


<div data-module="myModule">
    <p>Pre-rendered content</p>
</div>

Let’s assume we have some logic to query the data-module attribute in our document, to load up the referenced application module (myModule) and then to attach it to that element. Basically, we would be adding behavior that targets a particular fragment in the document.

This is our first step in making a Web application responsive: progressive module injection. Also, note that we could easily attach multiple modules to a single page in this way.

Conditional Module Injection

Sometimes we want to load a module only if a certain condition is met — for instance, when the device has a particular feature, such as touch or GPS:


<div data-module="find/my/dog" data-condition="gps">
    <p>Pre-rendered fallback content if GPS is unavailable.</p>
</div>

This will load the find/my/dog module only if the geolocation API is available.

Note: For the smallest footprint possible, we’ll simply use our own feature detection for now. (Really, we’re just checking for 'geolocation' in navigator.) Later, we might need more robust detection and so delegate this task to a tool such as Modernizr or Has.js (and possibly PhoneGap in hybrid mode).

Extended Module Injection

What if we want to load variants of a module based on media queries? Take this syntax:


<div data-module="myModule" data-variant="large">
    <p>Pre-rendered content</p>
</div>

This will load myModule on small screens and myModule/large on large screens.

For brevity, this single attribute contains the condition and the location of the variant (by convention). Programmatically, you could go mobile first and have the latter extend from the former (or separated modules, or even the other way around). This can be decided case by case.

Media Queries

Of course, we couldn’t call this responsive if it wasn’t actually driven by media queries. Consider this CSS:


@media all and (min-width: 45em) {
	body:after {
		content: 'large';
		display: none;
	}
}

Then, from JavaScript this value can be read:


var size = window.getComputedStyle(document.body,':after').getPropertyValue('content');

And this is why we can decide to load the myModule/large module from the last example if size === "large", and load myModule otherwise. Being able to conditionally not load a module at all is useful, too:


<div data-module="myModule" data-condition="!small">
    <p>Pre-rendered content</p>
</div>

There might be cases for media queries inside module declarations:


<div data-module="myModule" data-matchMedia="min-width: 800px">
    <p>Pre-rendered content</p>
</div>

Here we can use the window.matchMedia() API (a polyfill is available). I normally wouldn’t recommend doing this because it’s not very maintainable. Following breakpoints as set in CSS seems logical (because page layout probably dictates which modules to show or hide anyway). But obviously it depends on the situation. Targeted element queries may also prove useful:


<div data-module="myModule" data-matchMediaElement="(min-width: 600px)"></div>

Please note that the names of the attributes used here represent only an example, a basic implementation. They’re supposed to clarify the idea. In a real-world scenario, it might be wise to, for example, namespace the attributes, to allow for multiple modules and/or conditions, and so on.

Device Orientation

Take special care with device orientation. We don’t want to load a different module when the device is rotated. So, the module itself should be responsive, and the page’s layout might need to accommodate for this.

Connecting The Dots

The concept of responsive behavior allows for a great deal of flexibility in how applications are designed and built. We will now look into where those “modules” come in, how they relate to application structure, and how this module injection might actually work.

Applications and Modules

We can think of a client-side application as a group of application modules that are built with low-level modules. As an example, we might have User and Message models and a MessageDetail view to compose an Inbox application module, which is part of an entire email client application. The details of implementation, such as the module format to be used (for example, AMD, CommonJS or the “revealing module” pattern), are not important here. Also, defining things this way doesn’t mean we can’t have a bunch of mini-apps on a single page. On the other hand, I have found this approach to scale well to applications of any size.

A Common Scenario

An approach I see a lot is to put something like <div id="container"> in the HTML, and then load a bunch of JavaScript that uses that element as a hook to append layouts or views. For a single application on a single page, this works fine, but in my experience it doesn’t scale well:

  • Application modules are not very reusable because they rely on a particular element to be present.
  • When multiple applications or application modules are to be instantiated on a single page, they all need their own particular element, further increasing complexity.

To solve these issues, instead of letting application modules control themselves, what about making them more reusable by providing the element they should attach to? Additionally, we don’t need to know which modules must be loaded up front; we will do that dynamically. Let’s see how things come together using powerful patterns such as Dependency Injection (DI) and Inversion of Control (IOC).

Dependency Injection

You might have wondered how myModule actually gets loaded and instantiated.

Loading the dependency is pretty easy. For instance, take the string from the data-module attribute (myModule), and have a module loader fetch the myModule.js script.

Let’s assume we are using AMD or CommonJS (either of which I highly recommended) and that the module exports something (say, its public API). Let’s also assume that this is some kind of constructor that can be instantiated. We don’t know how to instantiate it because we don’t know exactly what it is up front. Should we instantiate it using new? What arguments should be passed? Is it a native JavaScript constructor function or a Backbone view or something completely different? Can we make sure the module attaches itself to the DOM element that we provide it with?

We have a couple of possible approaches here. A simple one is to always expect the same exported value — such as a Backbone view. It’s simple but might be enough. It would come down to this (using AMD and a Backbone view):


var moduleNode = document.querySelector('[data-module]'),
    moduleName = node.getAttribute('data-module');

require([moduleName], function(MyBackBoneView) {
    new MyBackBoneView({
        el: moduleNode
    });
})

That’s the gist of it. It works fine, but there are even better ways to apply this pattern of dependency injection.

IOC Containers

Let’s take a library such as the excellent wire.js library by cujoJS. An important concept in wire.js is “wire specs,” which essentially are IOC containers. It performs the actual instantiation of the application modules based on a declarative specification. Going this route, the data-module should reference a wire spec (instead of a module) that describes what module to load and how to instantiate it, allowing for practically any type of module. Now, all we need to do is pass the reference to the spec and the viewNode to wire.js. We can simply define this:


wire([specName, { viewNode: moduleNode }]);

Much better. We let wire.js do all of the hard work. Besides, wire has a ton of other features.

In summary, we can say that our declarative composition in HTML (<div data-module="">) is parsed by the composer, and consults the advisor about whether the module should be loaded (data-condition) and which module to load (data-module or data-variant), so that the dependency injector (DI, wire.js) can load and apply the correct spec and application module:

Declarative Composition

Detections for screen size and device features that are used to build responsive applications are sometimes implemented deep inside application logic. This responsibility should be laid elsewhere, decoupled more from the particular applications. We are already doing our (responsive) layout composition with HTML and CSS, so responsive applications fit in naturally. You could think of the HTML as an IOC container to compose applications.

You might not like to put (even) more information in the HTML. And honestly, I don’t like it at all. But it’s the price to pay for optimized performance when scaling up. Otherwise, we would have to make another request to find out whether and which module to load, which defeats the purpose.

Wrapping Up

I think the combination of declarative application composition, responsive module loading and module extension opens up a boatload of options. It gives you a lot of freedom to implement application modules the way you want, while supporting a high level of performance, maintainability and software design.

Performance and Build

Sometimes RWD actually decreases the performance of a website when implemented superficially (such as by simply adding some media queries or extra JavaScript). But for RWA, performance is actually what drives the responsive injection of modules or variants of modules. In the spirit of mobile first, load only what is required (and enhance from there).

Looking at the build process to minify and optimize applications, we can see that the challenge lies in finding the right approach to optimize either for a single application or for reusable application modules across multiple pages or contexts. In the former case, concatenating all resources into a single JavaScript file is probably best. In the latter case, concatenating resources into a separate shared core file and then packaging application modules into separate files is a sound approach.

A Scalable Approach

Responsive behavior and complete RWAs are powerful in a lot of scenarios, and they can be implemented using various patterns. We have only scratched the surface. But technically and conceptually, the approach is highly scalable. Let’s look at some example scenarios and patterns:

  • Sprinkle bits of behavior onto static content websites.
  • Serve widgets in a portal-like environment (think a dashboard, iGoogle or Netvibes). Load a single widget on a small screen, and enable more as screen resolution allows.
  • Compose context-aware applications in HTML using reusable and responsive application modules.

In general, the point is to maximize portability and reach by building on proven concepts to run applications on multiple platforms and environments.

Future-Proof and Portable

Some of the major advantages of building applications in HTML5 is that they’re future-proof and portable. Write HTML5 today and your efforts won’t be obsolete tomorrow. The list of platforms and environments where HTML5-powered applications run keeps growing rapidly:

  • As regular Web applications in browsers;
  • As hybrid applications on mobile platforms, powered by Apache Cordova (see note below):
    • iOS,
    • Android,
    • Windows Phone,
    • BlackBerry;
  • As Open Web Apps (OWA), currently only in Firefox OS;
  • As desktop applications (such as those packaged by the Sencha Desktop Packager):
    • Windows,
    • OS X,
    • Linux.

Note: Tools such as Adobe PhoneGap Build, IBM Worklight and Telerik’s Icenium all use Apache Cordova APIs to access native device functionality.

Demo

You might want to dive into some code or see things in action. That’s why I created a responsive Web apps repository on GitHub, which also serves as a working demo.

Conclusion

Honestly, not many big websites (let alone true Web applications) have gone truly responsive since The Boston Globe. However, looking at deciding factors such as cost, distribution, reach, portability and auto-updating, RWAs are both a huge opportunity and a big challenge. It’s only a matter of time before they become much more mainstream.

We are still looking for ways to get there, and we’ve covered just one approach to building RWAs here. In any case, declarative composition for responsive applications is quite powerful and could serve as a solid starting point.

(al) (ea)

© Lars Kappert for Smashing Magazine, 2013.

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Original author: 
Addy Osmani

  

Today we’ll discuss how to improve the paint performance of your websites and Web apps. This is an area that we Web developers have only recently started looking at more closely, and it’s important because it could have an impact on your user engagement and user experience.

Frame Rate Applies To The Web, Too

Frame rate is the rate at which a device produces consecutive images to the screen. A low frames per second (FPS) means that individual frames can be made out by the eye. A high FPS gives users a more responsive feel. You’re probably used to this concept from the world of gaming, but it applies to the Web, too.

Long image decoding, unnecessary image resizing, heavy animation and data processing can all lead to dropped frames, which reduces the frame rate, resulting in janky pages. We’ll explain what exactly we mean by “jank” shortly.

Why Care About Frame Rate?

Smooth, high frame rates drive user engagement and can affect how much users interact with your website or app.

At EdgeConf earlier this year, Facebook confirmed this when it mentioned that in an A/B test, it slowed down scrolling from 60 FPS to 30 FPS, causing engagement to collapse. That said, if you can’t do high frame rates and 60 FPS is out of reach, then you’d at least want something smooth. If you’re doing your own animation, this is one benefit of using requestAnimationFrame: the browser can dynamically adjust to keep the frame rate normal.

In cases where you’re concerned about scrolling, the browser can manage the frame rate for you. But if you introduce a large amount of jank, then it won’t be able to do as good a job. So, try to avoid big hitches, such as long paints, long JavaScript execution times, long anything.

Don’t Guess It, Test It!

Before getting started, we need to step back and look at our approach. We all want our websites and apps to run more quickly. In fact, we’re arguably paid to write code that runs not only correctly, but quickly. As busy developers with deadlines, we find it very easy to rely on snippets of advice that we’ve read or heard. Problems arise when we do that, though, because the internals of browsers change very rapidly, and something that’s slow today could be quick tomorrow.

Another point to remember is that your app or website is unique, and, therefore, the performance issues you face will depend heavily on what you’re building. Optimizing a game is a very different beast to optimizing an app that users will have open for 200+ hours. If it’s a game, then you’ll likely need to focus your attention on the main loop and heavily optimize the chunk of code that is going to run every frame. With a DOM-heavy application, the memory usage might be the biggest performance bottleneck.

Your best option is to learn how to measure your application and understand what the code is doing. That way, when browsers change, you will still be clear about what matters to you and your team and will be able to make informed decisions. So, no matter what, don’t guess it, test it!

We’re going to discuss how to measure frame rate and paint performance shortly, so hold onto your seats!

Note: Some of the tools mentioned in this article require Chrome Canary, with the “Developer Tools experiments” enabled in about:flags. (We — Addy Osmani and Paul Lewis — are engineers on the Developer Relations team at Chrome.)

Case Study: Pinterest

The other day we were on Pinterest, trying to find some ponies to add to our pony board (Addy loves ponies!). So, we went over to the Pinterest feed and started scrolling through, looking for some ponies to add.

Screen Shot 2013-03-25 at 14.30.57-500
Addy adding some ponies to his Pinterest board, as one does. Larger view.

Jank Affects User Experience

The first thing we noticed as we scrolled was that scrolling on this page doesn’t perform very well — scrolling up and down takes effort, and the experience just feels sluggish. When they come up against this, users get frustrated, which means they’re more likely to leave. Of course, this is the last thing we want them to do!

Screen Shot 2013-03-25 at 14.31.27-500
Pinterest showing a performance bottleneck when a user scrolls. Larger view.

This break in consistent frame rate is something the Chrome team calls “jank,” and we’re not sure what’s causing it here. You can actually notice some of the frames being drawn as we scroll. But let’s visualize it! We’re going to open up Frames mode and show what slow looks like there in just a moment.

Note: What we’re really looking for is a consistently high FPS, ideally matching the refresh rate of the screen. In many cases, this will be 60 FPS, but it’s not guaranteed, so check the devices you’re targeting.

Now, as JavaScript developers, our first instinct is to suspect a memory leak as being the cause. Perhaps some objects are being held around after a round of garbage collection. The reality, however, is that very often these days JavaScript is not a bottleneck. Our major performance problems come down to slow painting and rendering times. The DOM needs to be turned into pixels on the screen, and a lot of paint work when the user scrolls could result in a lot of slowing down.

Note: HTML5 Rocks specifically discusses some of the causes of slow scrolling. If you think you’re running into this problem, it’s worth a read.

Measuring Paint Performance

Frame Rate

We suspect that something on this page is affecting the frame rate. So, let’s go open up Chrome’s Developer Tools and head to the “Timeline” and “Frames” mode to record a new session. We’ll click the record button and start scrolling the page the way a normal user would. Now, to simulate a few minutes of usage, we’re going to scroll just a little faster.

Screen Shot 2013-05-15 at 17.57.48-500
Using Chrome’s Developer Tools to profile scrolling interactions. Larger view.

Up, down, up, down. What you’ll notice now in the summary view up at the top is a lot of purple and green, corresponding to painting and rendering times. Let’s stop recording for now. As we flip through these various frames, we see some pretty hefty “Recalculate Styles” and a lot of “Layout.”

If you look at the legend to the very right, you’ll see that we’ve actually blown our budget of 60 FPS, and we’re not even hitting 30 FPS either in many cases. It’s just performing quite poorly. Now, each of these bars in the summary view correspond to one frame — i.e. all of the work that Chrome has to do in order to be able to draw an app to the screen.

screen434343-500
Chrome’s Developer Tools showing a long paint time. Larger view.

Frame Budget

If you’re targeting 60 FPS, which is generally the optimal number of frames to target these days, then to match the refresh rate of the devices we commonly use, you’ll have a 16.7-millisecond budget in which to complete everything — JavaScript, layout, image decoding and resizing, painting, compositing — everything.

Note: A constant frame rate is our ideal here. If you can’t hit 60 FPS for whatever reason, then you’re likely better off targeting 30 FPS, rather than allowing a variable frame rate between 30 and 60 FPS. In practice, this can be challenging to code because when the JavaScript finishes executing, all of the layout, paint and compositing work still has to be done, and predicting that ahead of time is very difficult. In any case, whatever your frame rate, ensure that it is consistent and doesn’t fluctuate (which would appear as stuttering).

If you’re aiming for low-end devices, such as mobile phones, then that frame budget of 16 milliseconds is really more like 8 to 10 milliseconds. This could be true on desktop as well, where your frame budget might be lowered as a result of miscellaneous browser processes. If you blow this budget, you will miss frames and see jank on the page. So, you likely have somewhere nearer 8 to 10 milliseconds, but be sure to test the devices you’re supporting to get a realistic idea of your budget.

Screen Shot 2013-03-25 at 14.34.26-500
An extremely costly layout operation of over 500 milliseconds. Larger view.

Note: We’ve also got an article on how to use the Chrome Developer Tools to find and fix rendering performance issues that focuses more on the timeline.

Going back to scrolling, we have a sneaking suspicion that a number of unnecessary repaints are occurring on this page with onscroll.

One common mistake is to stuff just way too much JavaScript into the onscroll handlers of a page — making it difficult to meet the frame budget at all. Aligning the work to the rendering pipeline (for example, by placing it in requestAnimationFrame) gives you a little more headroom, but you still have only those few milliseconds in which to get everything done.

The best thing you can do is just capture values such as scrollTop in your scroll handlers, and then use the most recent value inside a requestAnimationFrame callback.

Paint Rectangles

Let’s go back to Developer Tools → Settings and enable “Show paint rectangles.” This visualizes the areas of the screen that are being painted with a nice red highlight. Now look at what happens as we scroll through Pinterest.

Screen Shot 2013-03-25 at 14.35.17-500
Enabling Chrome Developer Tools’ “Paint Rectangles” feature. Larger view.

Every few milliseconds, we experience a big bright flash of red across the entire screen. There seems to be a paint of the whole screen every time we scroll, which is potentially very expensive. What we want to see is the browser just painting what is new to the page — so, typically just the bottom or top of the page as it gets scrolled into view. The cause of this issue seems to be the little “scroll to top” button in the lower-right corner. As the user scrolls, the fixed header at the top needs to be repainted, but so does the button. The way that Chrome deals with this is to create a union of the two areas that need to be repainted.

Screen Shot 2013-05-15 at 19.00.12-500
Chrome shows freshly painted areas with a red box. Larger view.

In this case, there is a rectangle from the top left to top right, but not very tall, plus a rectangle in the lower-right corner. This leaves us with a rectangle from the top left to bottom right, which is essentially the whole screen! If you inspect the button element in Developer Tools and either hide it (using the H key) or delete it and then scroll again, you will see that only the header area is repainted. The way to solve this particular problem is to move the scroll button to its own layer so that it doesn’t get unioned with the header. This essentially isolates the button so that it can be composited on top of the rest of the page. But we’ll talk about layers and compositing in more detail in a little bit.

The next thing we notice has to do with hovering. When we hover over a pin, Pinterest paints an action bar containing “Repin, comment and like” buttons — let’s call this the action bar. When we hover over a single pin, it paints not just the bar but also the elements underlying it. Painting should happen only on those elements that you expect to change visually.

Screen Shot 2013-03-25 at 14.35.46-500
A cause for concern: full-screen flashes of red indicate a lot of painting. Larger view.

There’s another interesting thing about scrolling here. Let’s keep our cursor hovered over this pin and start scrolling the page again.

Every time we scroll through a new row of images, this action bar gets painted on yet another pin, even though we don’t mean to hover over it. This comes down more to UX than anything else, but scrolling performance in this case might be more important than the hover effect during scrolling. Hovering amplifies jank during scrolling because the browser essentially pauses to go off and paint the effect (the same is true when we roll out of the element!). One option here is to use a setTimeout with a delay to ensure that the bar is painted only when the user really intends to use it, an approach we covered in “Avoiding Unnecessary Paints.” A more aggressive approach would be to measure the mouseenter or the mouse’s trajectory before enabling hover behaviors. While this measure might seem rather extreme, remember that we are trying to avoid unnecessary paints at all costs, especially when the user is scrolling.

Overall Paint Cost

We now have a really great workflow for looking at the overall cost of painting on a page; go back into Developer Tools and “Enable continuous page repainting.” This feature will constantly paint to your screen so that you can find out what elements have costly paint times. You’ll get this really nice black box in the top corner that summarizes paint times, with the minimum and maximum also displayed.

screenshot43234242-500
Chrome’s “Continuous Page Repainting” mode helps you to assess the overall cost of a page. Larger view.

Let’s head back to the “Elements” panel. Here, we can select a node and just use the keyboard to walk the DOM tree. If we suspect that an element has an expensive paint, we can use the H shortcut key (something recently added to Chrome) to toggle visibility on that element. Using the continuous paint box, we can instantly see whether this has a positive effect on our pages’ paint times. We should expect it to in many cases, because if we hide an element, we should expect a corresponding reduction in paint times. But by doing this, we might see one element that is especially expensive, which would bear further scrutiny!

Screen Shot 2013-06-10 at 09.46.31_500_mini
The “Continuous Page Repainting” chart showing the time taken to paint the page.

For Pinterest’s website, we can do it to the categories bar or to the header, and, as you’d expect, because we don’t have to paint these elements at all, we see a drop in the time it takes to paint to the screen. If we want even more detailed insight, we can go right back to the timeline and record a new session to measure the impact. Isn’t that great? Now, while this workflow should work great for most pages, there might be times when it isn’t as useful. In Pinterest’s case, the pins are actually quite deeply nested in the page, making it hard for us to measure paint times in this workflow.

Luckily, we can still get some good mileage by selecting an element (such as a pin here), going to the “Styles” panel and looking at what CSS styles are being used. We can toggle properties on and off to see how they effect the paint times. This gives us much finer-grained insight into the paint profile of the page.

Here, we see that Pinterest is using box-shadow on these pins. We’ve optimized the performance of box-shadow in Chrome over the past two years, but in combination with other styles and when heavily used, it could cause a bottleneck, so it’s worth looking at.

Pinterest has reduced continuous paint mode times by 40% by moving box-shadow to a separate element that doesn’t have border-radius. The side effect is slightly fuzzy-looking corners; however, it is barely noticeable due to the color scheme and the low border-radius values.

Note: You can read more about this topic in “CSS Paint Times and Page Render Weight.”

Screen Shot 2013-03-25 at 15.47.40-500
Toggling styles to measure their effect on page-rendering weight. Larger view.

Let’s disable box-shadow to see whether it makes a difference. As you can see, it’s no longer visible on any of the pins. So, let’s go back to the timeline and record a new session in which we scroll the same way as we did before (up and down, up and down, up and down). We’re getting closer to 60 FPS now, and that’s just from one change.

Public service announcement: We’re absolutely not saying don’t use box-shadow — by all means, do! Just make sure that if you have a performance problem, measure correctly to find out what your own bottlenecks are. Always measure! Your website or application is unique, as will any performance bottleneck be. Browser internals change almost daily, so measuring is the smartest way to stay up to date on the changes, and Chrome’s Developer Tools makes this really easy to do.

Screen Shot 2013-03-25 at 15.50.25-500
Using Chrome Developer Tools to profile is the best way to track browser performance changes. Larger view.

Note: Eberhard Grather recently wrote a detailed post on “Profiling Long Paint Times With DevTools’ Continuous Painting Mode,” which you should spend some quality time with.

Another thing we noticed is that if you click on the “Repin” button, do you see the animated effect and the lightbox being painted? There’s a big red flash of repaint in the background. It’s not clear from the tooling if the paint is the white cover or some other affected being area. Be sure to double check that the paint rectangles correspond to the element or elements that you think are being repainted, and not just what it looks like. In this case, it looks like the whole screen is being repainted, but it could well be just the white cover, which might not be all that expensive. It’s nuanced; the important thing is to understand what you’re seeing and why.

Hardware Compositing (GPU Acceleration)

The last thing we’re going to look at on Pinterest is GPU acceleration. In the past, Web browsers have relied pretty heavily on the CPU to render pages. This involved two things: firstly, painting elements into a bunch of textures, called layers; and secondly, compositing all of those layers together to the final picture seen on screen.

Over the past few years, however, we’ve found that getting the GPU involved in the compositing process can lead to some significant speeding up. The premise is that, while the textures are still painted on the CPU, they can be uploaded to the GPU for compositing. Assuming that all we do on future frames is move elements around (using CSS transitions or animations) or change their opacity, we simply provide these changes to the GPU and it takes care of the rest. We essentially avoid having to give the GPU any new graphics; rather, we just ask it to move existing ones around. This is something that the GPU is exceptionally quick at doing, thus improving performance overall.

There is no guarantee that this hardware compositing will be available and enabled on a given platform, but if it is available the first time you use, say, a 3D transform on an element, then it will be enabled in Chrome. Many developers use the translateZ hack to do just that. The other side effect of using this hack is that the element in question will get its own layer, which may or may not be what you want. It can be very useful to effectively isolate an element so that it doesn’t affect others as and when it gets repainted. It’s worth remembering that the uploading of these textures from system memory to the video memory is not necessarily very quick. The more layers you have, the more textures need to be uploaded and the more layers that will need to be managed, so it’s best not to overdo it.

Note: Tom Wiltzius has written about the layer model in Chrome, which is a relevant read if you are interested in understanding how compositing works behind the scenes. Paul has also written a post about the translateZ hack and how to make sure you’re using it in the right ways.

Another great setting in Developer Tools that can help here is “Show composited layer borders.” This feature will give you insight into those DOM elements that are being manipulated at the GPU level.

layer_folders_addy_500_mini
Switching on composited layer borders will indicate Chrome’s rendering layers. Larger view.

If an element is taking advantage of the GPU acceleration, you’ll see an orange border around it with this on. Now as we scroll through, we don’t really see any use of composited layers on this page — not when we click “Scroll to top” or otherwise.

Chrome is getting better at automatically handling layer promotion in the background; but, as mentioned, developers sometimes use the translateZ hack to create a composited layer. Below is Pinterest’s feed with translateZ(0) applied to all pins. It’s not hitting 60 FPS, but it is getting closer to a consistent 30 FPS on desktop, which is actually not bad.

Screen Shot 2013-05-15 at 19.03.13-500
Using the translateZ(0) hack on all Pinterest pins. Note the orange borders. Larger view.

Remember to test on both desktop and mobile, though; their performance characteristics vary wildly. Use the timeline in both, and watch your paint time chart in Continuous Paint mode to evaluate how fast you’re busting your budget.

Again, don’t use this hack on every element on the page — it might pass muster on desktop, but it won’t on mobile. The reason is that there is increased video memory usage and an increased layer management cost, both of which could have a negative impact on performance. Instead, use hardware compositing only to isolate elements where the paint cost is measurably high.

Note: In the WebKit nightlies, the Web Inspector now also gives you the reasons for layers being composited. To enable this, switch off the “Use WebKit Web Inspector” option and you’ll get the front end with this feature in there. Switch it on using the “Layers” button.

A Find-and-Fix Workflow

Now that we’ve concluded our Pinterest case study, what about the workflow for diagnosing and addressing your own paint problems?

Finding the Problem

  • Make sure you’re in “Incognito” mode. Extensions and apps can skew the figures that are reported when profiling performance.
  • Open the page and the Developer Tools.
  • In the timeline, record and interact with your page.
  • Check for frames that go over budget (i.e. over 60 FPS).
  • If you’re close to budget, then you’re likely way over the budget on mobile.
  • Check the cause of the jank. Long paint? CSS layout? JavaScript?

Screen Shot 2013-05-15 at 19.36.22-500
Spend some quality time with Frame mode in Chrome Developer Tools to understand your website’s runtime profile. Larger view.

Fixing the Problem

  • Go to “Settings” and enable “Continuous Page Repainting.”
  • In the “Elements” panel, hide anything non-essential using the hide (H) shortcut.
  • Walk through the DOM tree, hiding elements and checking the FPS in the timeline.
  • See which element(s) are causing long paints.
  • Uncheck styles that could affect paint time, and track the FPS.
  • Continue until you’ve located the elements and styles responsible for the slow-down.

fixing-500_mini
Switch on extra Developer Tools features for more insight. Larger view.

What About Other Browsers?

Although at the time of writing, Chrome has the best tools to profile paint performance, we strongly recommend testing and measuring your pages in other browsers to get a feel for what your own users might experience (where feasible). Performance can vary massively between them, and a performance smell in one browser might not be present in another.

As we said earlier, don’t guess it, test it! Measure for yourself, understand the abstractions, know your browser’s internals. In time, we hope that the cross- browser tooling for this area improves so that developers can get an accurate picture of rendering performance, regardless of the browser being used.

Conclusion

Performance is important. Not all machines are created equal, and the fast machines that developers work on might not have the performance problems encountered on the devices of real users. Frame rate in particular can have a big impact on engagement and, consequently, on a project’s success. Luckily, a lot of great tools out there can help with that.

Be sure to measure paint performance on both desktop and mobile. If all goes well, your users will end up with snappier, more silky-smooth experiences, regardless of the device they’re using.

Further Reading

About the Authors

Addy Osmani and Paul Lewis are engineers on the Developer Relations team at Chrome, with a focus on tooling and rendering performance, respectively. When they’re not causing trouble, they have a passion for helping developers build snappy, fluid experiences on the Web.

(al)

© Addy Osmani for Smashing Magazine, 2013.

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Jeremy Keith notes that what happens between the breakpoints is just as important as the breakpoints themselves—perhaps even more so. While I agree with this, we do have to start somewhere. In a way, this part of the process reminds me of storyboarding, or creating animation keyframes, with the in-between frames being developed later. We’re going to do that here.

Major breakpoints are conditions that, when met, trigger major changes in your design. A major breakpoint might be, for example, where your entire layout must change from two columns to four.

Let’s say you’ve chosen three basic design directions from your thumbnails. Think about what your major breakpoints will look like (Figure 7.6). And here’s the key: try to come up with as few major breakpoints as possible. That might sound crazy, since we’re talking about responsive design. After all, we have media queries, so let’s use about 12 of them, right? No! If a linear layout works for every screen and is appropriate for your particular concept, then there’s no need for different layouts. In that case, simply describe what will happen when the screen gets larger. Will everything generally stay the same, with changes only to font size, line height and margins? If so, sketch those. For these variations, make thumbnails first, explore some options, and then move on to larger, more detailed sketches. Use your breakpoint graph as a guide at first and make sketches according to the breakpoints you’ve estimated on your graph.

When thinking about major breakpoints, remember to think about device classes. If you’re thinking about smartphones, tablets, laptops/desktops, TVs, and game consoles, for example, you’re heading in the right direction. If you’re thinking in terms of brand names and specific operating systems, you’re on the wrong track. The idea is to think in terms of general device classifications and, sometimes, device capabilities. Capabilities are more important when designing web applications, since you should be thinking about what screens will look like both with and without any particular capability.

Rough sketches of major breakpoints can help you determine:

Rough sketches are more detailed than thumbnails, but they shouldn’t take a long time to create. In a short period, you should have a sketch of each major breakpoint for each of your chosen designs. This should be enough to decide on one of the designs.

  • Whether or not more major breakpoints are needed
  • Which design choice will be the most labor intensive; you might opt for a design that will better fit within time and budget constraints
  • Whether or not a particular device class has been neglected or needs further consideration
  • What technologies you’ll need to develop the design responsively


Figure 7.6: Most websites need very few major breakpoints.

Minor breakpoints are conditions that, when met, trigger small changes in your design. An example would be moving form labels from above text fields to the left of those fields, while the rest of the design remains the same.

So where and when will you sketch minor breakpoints? In the browser, when you do your web-based mockup. You’ll find out why and how in the next chapter. In the meantime, simply focus on making sketches of the state of your web pages or app screens at the major breakpoints of each design.

At this point, don’t worry too much if you notice that the initial breakpoints on your breakpoint graph simply won’t do. Those were just a starting point, and you’re free to revise your estimate based on your sketches. You might even decide that you need an extra breakpoint for a given design and record that in sketch form; you can add that breakpoint to your graph. This is a cycle of discovery, learning, and revision.

Think about your content while sketching

While sketching, you’ll certainly be thinking about the way things should look. My experience is that much UI sketching of this type revolves around the layout of elements on the screen. I’ve found it useful to keep thinking about the content while sketching, and to consider what will happen to the content in various situations. When designing responsively, it can be useful to consider how you’ll handle the following content in particular:

  • Text
  • Navigation
  • Tables

Oh, sure, there are many more things to consider, and you’ll end up creating your own list of “things to do some extra thinking about” as the project progresses. For now, let’s take a look at the items listed above.

Text

Before you say, “Hey, wait a minute, didn’t you just tell me that I didn’t have to draw text while sketching?” hear me out. While sketching, there are a couple of text-related issues you’ll need to tackle: column width and text size, both of which are relevant in proportion to the screen and the other elements on the page.

Column width is fairly obvious, but it can be difficult to estimate how wide a column will be with actual text. In this case, sketching on a device might give you a better idea of the actual space you have to work with. Another method I’ve used is just to make a simple HTML page that contains only text, and load that into a device’s browser (or even an emulator, which while not optimal still gives a more realistic impression than lines on paper). When the text seems too large or too small, you can adjust the font size accordingly. Once it seems right, you’ll be able to make your sketches a bit more realistic.

Note: Distinguish between touchability and clickability. Many designers, myself included, have made the mistake of refining links for people who click on them using a mouse, or even via the keyboard, without considering how touchable these links are for people on touch devices.

Think about the size of links—not only the text size, but also the amount of space around them. Both of these factors play a role in the touchability or clickability of links (and buttons): large links and buttons are easier targets, but slightly smaller links with plenty of space around them can work just as well. That said, there’s a decent chance that no matter what you choose to sketch, you’ll end up making changes again when you create your mockups.

This is the great thing about sketching that I can’t repeat often enough: you’re going to refine your design in the browser anyway, so the speed with which you can try things out when sketching means you won’t have to do detail work more than once (unless your client has changes, but we all know that never happens).

Navigation

Navigation is another poster child for sketching on actual devices. The size issues are the same as with links, but there’s a lot more thinking to do in terms of the design of navigation for various devices, which means navigation might change significantly at each major breakpoint.

Think back to Bryan Rieger’s practice of designing in text first, and ponder what you would do before the very first breakpoint if you had only plain HTML and CSS at your disposal—in other words, if you had no JavaScript. That means no, you can’t have your menu collapsed at the top of the screen and have it drop down when someone touches it. If you have your menu at the top, it’s in its expanded form and takes up all the vertical space it normally would.

This is a controversial enough subject, with even accessibility gurus in disagreement: JavaScript, after all, is currently considered an “accessibility supported” technology. But this isn’t necessarily about accessibility. It’s about thinking about what happens when a browser lacks JavaScript support, or if the JavaScript available on the device is different than what you’d expect. Your content will be presented in a certain way before JavaScript does its thing with it, no matter what the browser. So why not think about what that initial state will be?

In the chapter on wireframes, I talked about my preferred pattern for navigation on the smallest screens: keep it near the bottom of the screen and place a link to that navigation near the top of the screen. JavaScript, when available and working as expected, can move that navigation up to the top and create the drop-down menu on the fly.

But a pattern is not design law, so how you choose to handle the smallest screens will depend on your project. If I had only a few links in my navigation, I might very well put the menu at the top from the very start, and there it would stay at every breakpoint.

Remember that JavaScript and CSS let you do a lot of rearranging of stuff on the screen. That knowledge should empower you to safely design a great page with plain HTML and use JavaScript and CSS to spice it up any way you like. This is the essence of progressive enhancement.

Tables

Tables! Oh, the bane of the responsive designer (or wait, is that images? Or video? Or layout? Ahem). Tables are tough to deal with on small screens. I’d love to tell you I have all the answers, but instead I have more questions. Hopefully, these will lead you to a solution. It’s good to think about these while you’re sketching.

First of all, what types of tables will you be dealing with? Narrow? Wide? Numerical? Textual? Your content inventory should give you enough information to answer these simple questions. Once you’ve considered those, try to categorize the types of tables you have into something like the following classes (Figure 7.7):

  • Small-screen-friendly tables, which you’ll probably leave as they are, because they’re small enough and will work fine on most small screens.
  • Blockable tables, which you can alter with CSS so that each row in the table functions visually as a block item in a list (Figure 7.8).
  • Chartable tables, which contain numerical data that can be transformed into a chart, graph, or other visualization that will take up less space on a small screen.
  • Difficult tables, which are hard enough to deal with that you’ll need to come up with a different plan for them, sometimes even on a case-by-case basis. These are our enemies, but unfortunately, are the friends of our clients, who all love Microsoft Excel. Oh well.


Figure 7.7: There are several different types of tables, and different ways of dealing with them on small screens. (Sources: mobilism.nl and eu-verantwoording.nl)


Figure 7.8: One way of dealing with small screen tables is to treat each row as a block.

Thinking again in terms of progressive enhancement, the base design should probably just include the whole table, which means that the user will have to scroll horizontally to see the whole thing in many cases. On top of this, we can employ CSS and JavaScript, when they’re available, to do some magic for us. Blockable and chartable tables can be blocked with CSS and charted with JavaScript. Plenty of designers and developers have experimented with many different options for tables, from simply making the table itself scrollable to exchanging columns and rows.

The fun part is that what you do on small screens isn’t necessarily what you’ll do on larger screens. That’s why now—when all you have to do is sketch and it won’t take much time—is the time to think about the changes you’ll be making at each breakpoint.

What to do if you get stuck

Every designer gets stuck at some point. It’s no big deal unless you treat it like one. There are countless ways to deal with it, from asking yourself what if questions (“What if it weren’t a table, but a list?” is what I asked myself before “blockifying” the attendees table for the Mobilism site) to the cliché taking a shower, which you hopefully do on a regular basis anyway. The reason this chapter focuses so much on sketching is because the act of drawing itself can actually stimulate your brain to come up with more ideas, provided you push it hard enough by sketching past your comfort zone of first-come ideas.

If your problem is that you’re stuck creatively, there are many inspiring books and resources to get your creative engine started during the bitter cold of designer’s block. Although there are plenty of resources on design and creativity itself (try such classics as Edward de Bono’s Lateral Thinking), the greatest inspiration can come from sources outside the realm of design.1 Trying to combine things that normally aren’t combined can lead to surprising results. It’s a simple little trick, but I’ve often used Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies to force me to take a different approach.2 Worst case, it’s a lot of fun. Best case, you’ve got a great idea!

If your problem is that you’re not sure how to handle something in the context of responsive design, there’s no harm in researching how others have solved problems like yours. Just be sure to use your creativity and tailor any ideas you might find to your own situation; after all, you’re a designer. At the time of this writing I find Brad Frost’s This Is Responsive to be one of the most exhaustive collections of responsive design patterns and resources available.3 You can spend hours going through there and you’ll certainly come across something that will get you unstuck.

Excerpted from Responsive Design Workflow by Stephen Hay. Copyright © 2013.
Used with permission of Pearson Education, Inc. and New Riders.

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Niall Kennedy

Todd Kuehnl has been a developer for nearly 20 years and says he's tried "pretty much every language under the sun."

But it was only recently that Kuehnl discovered Go, a programming language unveiled by Google almost four years ago. Go is still a new kid on the block, but for Kuehnl, the conversion was quick. Now he says "Go is definitely by far my favorite programming language to work in." Kuehnl admitted he is "kind of a fanboy."

I'm no expert in programming, but I talked to Kuehnl because I was curious what might draw experienced coders to switch from proven languages to a brand new one (albeit one co-invented by the famous Ken Thompson, creator of Unix and the B programming language). Google itself runs some of its back-end systems on Go, no surprise for a company that designs its own servers and much of the software (right down to the operating systems) that its employees use. But why would non-Google engineers go with Go?

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Stéphanie Walter

  

Responsive Web design has been around for some years now, and it was a hot topic in 2012. Many well-known people such as Brad Frost and Luke Wroblewski have a lot of experience with it and have helped us make huge improvements in the field. But there’s still a whole lot to do.

In this article, we will look at what is currently possible, what will be possible in the future using what are not yet standardized properties (such as CSS Level 4 and HTML5 APIS), and what still needs to be improved. This article is not exhaustive, and we won’t go deep into each technique, but you’ll have enough links and knowledge to explore further by yourself.

The State Of Images In Responsive Web Design

What better aspect of responsive Web design to start off with than images? This has been a major topic for a little while now. It got more and more important with the arrival of all of the high-density screens. By high density, I mean screens with a pixel ratio higher than 2; Apple calls these Retina devices, and Google calls them XHDPI. In responsive Web design, images come with two big related challenges: size and performance.

Most designers like pixel perfection, but “normal”-sized images on high-density devices look pixelated and blurry. Simply serving double-sized images to high-density devices might be tempting, right? But that would create a performance problem. Double-sized images would take more time to load. Users of high-density devices might not have the bandwidth necessary to download those images. Also, depending on which country the user lives in, bandwidth can be pretty costly.

The second problem affects smaller devices: why should a mobile device have to download a 750-pixel image when it only needs a 300-pixel one? And do we have a way to crop images so that small-device users can focus on what is important in them?

Two Markup Solutions: The <picture> Element and The srcset Attribute

A first step in solving the challenge of responsive images is to change the markup of embedded images on an HTML page.

The Responsive Images Community Group supports a proposal for a new, more flexible element, the <picture> element. The concept is to use the now well-known media queries to serve different images to different devices. Thus, smaller devices would get smaller images. It works a bit like the markup for video, but with different images being referred to in the source element.

The code in the proposed specification looks like this :


<picture width="500"  height="500">     
  <source  media="(min-width: 45em)" src="large.jpg">
  <source  media="(min-width: 18em)" src="med.jpg">
  <source  src="small.jpg">
  <img  src="small.jpg" alt="">
  <p>Accessible  text</p>
</picture>

If providing different sources is possible, then we could also imagine providing different crops of an image to focus on what’s important for smaller devices. The W3C’s “Art Direction” use case shows a nice example of what could be done.

Picture element used for artistic direction
(Image: Egor Pasko)

The solution is currently being discussed by the W3C Responsive Images Community Group but is not usable in any browser at the moment as far as we know. A polyfill named Picturefill is available, which does pretty much the same thing. It uses a div and data-attribute syntax for safety’s sake.

A second proposal for responsive images markup was made to the W3C by Apple and is called “The srcset Attribute”; its CSS Level 4 equivalent is image-set(). The purpose of this attribute is to force user agents to select an appropriate resource from a set, rather than fetch the entire set. The HTML syntax for this proposal is based on the <img> tag itself, and the example in the specification looks like this:


<img  alt="The Breakfast Combo" 
  src="banner.jpeg"
  srcset="banner-HD.jpeg  2x, banner-phone.jpeg 100w, banner-phone-HD.jpeg 100w 2x">

As you can see, the syntax is not intuitive at all. The values of the tag consist of comma-separated strings. The values of the attribute are the names or URLs of the various images, the pixel density of the device and the maximum viewport size each is intended for.

In plain English, this is what the snippet above says:

  • The default image is banner.jpeg.
  • Devices that have a pixel ratio higher than 2 should use banner-HD.jpeg.
  • Devices with a maximum viewport size of 100w should use banner-phone.jpeg.
  • Devices with a maximum viewport size of 100w and a pixel ratio higher than 2 should use banner-phone-HD.jpeg.

The first source is the default image if the srcset attribute is not supported. The 2x suffix for banner-HD.jpeg means that this particular image should be used for devices with a pixel ratio higher than 2. The 100w for banner-phone.jpeg represents the minimum viewport size that this image should be used for. Due to its technical complexity, this syntax has not yet been implemented in any browser.

The syntax of the image-set() CSS property works pretty much the same way and enables you to load a particular background image based on the screen’s resolution:


background-image: image-set(  "foo.png" 1x,
  "foo-2x.png"  2x,
  "foo-print.png"  600dpi );

This proposal is still a W3C Editor’s Draft. For now, it works in Safari 6+ and Chrome 21+.

Image Format, Compression, SVG: Changing How We Work With Images on the Web

As you can see, these attempts to find a new markup format for images are still highly experimental. This raises the issue of image formats themselves. Can we devise a responsive solution by changing the way we handle the images themselves?

The first step would be to look at alternative image formats that have a better compression rate. Google, for example, has developed a new image format named WebP, which is 26% smaller than PNG and 25 to 34% smaller than JPEG. The format is supported in Google Chrome, Opera, Yandex, Android and Safari and can be activated in Internet Explorer using the Google Chrome Frame plugin. The main problem with this format is that Firefox does not plan to implement it. Knowing this, widespread use is unlikely for now.

Another idea that is gaining popularity is progressive JPEG images. Progressive JPEG images are, as the name suggests, progressively rendered. The first rendering is blurry, and then the image gets progressively sharper as it renders. Non-progressive JPEG images are rendered from top to bottom. In her article “Progressive JPEGs: A New Best Practice,” Ann Robson argues that progressive JPEGs give the impression of greater speed than baseline JPEGs. A progressive JPEG gives the user a quick general impression of the image before it has fully loaded. This does not solve the technical problems of performance and image size, though, but it does improve the user experience.

Another solution to the problems of performance and image size is to change the compression rate of images. For a long time, we thought that enlarging the compression rate of an image would damage the overall quality of the image. But Daan Jobsis has done extensive research on the subject and has written an article about it, “Retina Revolution.” In his experiments, he tried different image sizes and compression rates and came up with a pretty interesting solution. If you keep the image dimensions twice the displayed ones but also use a higher compression rate, then the image will have a smaller file size than the original, but will still be sharp on both normal and high-density screens. With this technique, Jobsis cut the weight of the image by 75%.

Image compression example
Daan Jobsis’ demonstration of image compression.

Given the headaches of responsive images, the idea of gaining pixel independence from images wherever possible is seducing more and more designers and developers. The SVG format, for example, can be used to create all of the UI elements of a website and will be resolution-independent. The elements will scale well for small devices and won’t be pixellated on high-density devices. Font icons are another growing trend. They involve asigning icon glyphs to certains characters of the font (like the Unicode Private Area ones), giving you the flexibility of fonts. Unfortunately, the solution doesn’t work with pictures, so a viable markup or image format is eagerly expected.

Responsive Layout Challenge: Rearrange And Work With Content Without Touching the HTML?

Let’s face it, the fluid grids made of floats and inline blocks that we use today are a poor patch waiting for a better solution. Working with layout and completely rearranging blocks on the page for mobile without resorting to JavaScript is a nightmare right now. It’s also pretty inflexible. This is particularly significant on websites created with a CMS; the designer can’t change the HTML of every page and every version of the website. So, how can this be improved?

Four CSS3 Layout Solutions That Address the Flexible Layout Problem

The most obvious possible solution is the CSS3 flexible box layout model (or “flexbox”). Its current status is candidate recommendation, and it is supported in most major mobile browsers and desktop browsers (in IE starting from version 10). The model enables you to easily reorder elements on the screen, independent of the HTML. You can also change the box orientation and box flow and distribute space and align according to the context. Below is an example of a layout that could be rearranged for mobile. The syntax would look like this:


.parent {
  display: flex;
  flex-flow: column; /* display items in columns */
}

.children {
  order: 1; /* change order of elements */
}

Flexbox as an example

The article “CSS3 Flexible Box Layout Explained” will give you a deeper understanding of how flexbox works.

Another solution quite close to the flexbox concept of reordering blocks on the page, but with JavaScript, is Relocate.

A second type of layout that is quite usable for responsive design today is the CSS3 multiple-column layout. The module is at the stage of candidate recommendation, and it works pretty well in most browsers, expect for IE 9 and below. The main benefit of this model is that content can flow from one column to another, providing a huge gain in flexibility. In terms of responsiveness, the number of columns can be changed according to the viewport’s size.

Setting the size of the columns and letting the browser calculate the number of columns according to the available space is possible. Also possible is setting the number of columns, with the gaps and rules between them, and letting the browser calculate the width of each column.

CSS3 Multiple Column layout

The syntax looks like this:


.container {
  column-width: 10em ; /* Browser will create 10em columns. Number of columns would depend on available space. */
}

.container {
  columns: 5; /* Browser will create 5 columns. Column size depends on available space. */
  column-gap: 2em;
}

To learn more, read David Walsh’s article “CSS Columns.”

A third CSS3 property that could gain more attention in future is the CSS3 grid layout. This gives designers and developers a flexible grid they can work with to create different layouts. It allows content elements to be displayed in columns and rows without a defined structure. First, you would declare a grid on the container, and then place all child elements in this virtual grid. You could then define a different grid for small devices or change the position of elements in the grid. This allows for enormous flexibility when used with media queries, changes in orientation and so on.

The syntax looks like this (from the 2 April 2013 working draft):


 .parent {
   display: grid; /* declare a grid */
   grid-definition-columns: 1stgridsize  2ndgridsize …;
   grid-definition-rows: 1strowsize  2ndrowsize …;
}

.element {
   grid-column: 1; 
   grid-row: 1
}

.element2 {
   grid-column: 1; 
   grid-row: 3;
}

To set the sizes of columns and rows, you can use various units, as detailed in the specification. To position the various elements, the specification says this: “Each part of the game is positioned between grid lines by referencing the starting grid line and then specifying, if more than one, the number of rows or columns spanned to determine the ending grid line, which establishes bounds for the part.”

The main problem with this property is that it is currently supported only in IE 10. To learn more about this layout, read Rachel Andrew’s “Giving Content Priority With CSS3 Grid Layout.” Also, note that the specification and syntax for grid layouts changed on 2 April 2013. Rachel wrote an update on the syntax, titled “CSS Grid Layout: What Has Changed?

The last layout that might become useful in future if implemented in browsers is the CSS3 template layout. This CSS3 module works by associating an element with a layout “name” and then ordering the elements on an invisible grid. The grid may be fixed or flexible and can be changed according to the viewport’s size.

The syntax looks like this:


.parent {
   display: "ab"
            "cd" /* creating the invisible  grid */
}

.child1 {
   position: a;
}

.child2 {
   position: b;
}

.child3 {
   position: c;
}

.child4 {
   position: d;
} 

This renders as follows:

CSS3 template layout

Unfortunately, browser support for this CSS3 module is currently null. Maybe someday, if designers and developers show enough interest in this specification, some browser vendors might implement it. For the moment, you can test it out with a polyfill.

Viewport-Relative Units and the End of Pixel-Based Layout

Viewport-based percentage lengths — vw, vh, vm, vmin and vmax — are units measured relative to the dimensions of the viewport itself.

One vw unit is equal to 1% of the width of the initial containing block. If the viewport’s width is 320, then 1 vw is 1 × 320/100 = 3.2 pixels.

The vh unit works the same way but is relative to the height of the viewport. So, 50 vh would equal 50% of the height of the document. At this point, you might wonder what the difference is with the percentage unit. While percentage units are relative to the size of the parent element, the vh and vw units will always be relative to the size of the viewport, regardless of the size of their parents.

This gets pretty interesting when you want to, for example, create a content box and make sure that it never extends below the viewport’s height so that the user doesn’t have to scroll to find it. This also enables us to create true 100%-height boxes without having to hack all of the elements’ parents.

The vmin unit is equal to the smaller of vm or vh, and vmax is equal to the larger of vm or vh; so, those units respond perfectly to changes in device orientation, too. Unfortunately, for the moment, those units are not supported in Android’s browser, so you might have to wait a bit before using them in a layout.

A Word on Adaptive Typography

The layout of a website will depend heavily on the content. I cannot conclude a section about the possibilities of responsive layout without addressing typography. CSS3 introduces a font unit that can be pretty handy for responsive typography: the rem unit. While fonts measured in em units have a length relative to their parent, font measured in rem units are relative to the font size of the root element. For a responsive website, you could write some CSS like the following and then change all font sizes simply by changing the font size specified for the html element:


html {
   font-size: 14px;
}

p {
   font-size: 1rem /* this has 14px */
}

@media screen and (max-width:380px) {
   html {
      font-size: 12px; /* make the font smaller for mobile devices */
   }

   p {
      font-size: 1rem /* this now equals 12px */
   }
}

Except for IE 8 and Opera mini, support for rem is pretty good. To learn more about rem units, read Matthew Lettini’s article “In Defense of Rem Units.”

A Better Way To Work Responsively With Other Complex Content

We are slowly getting better at dealing with images and text in responsive layouts, but we still need to find solutions for other, more complex types of content.

Dealing With Forms on a Responsive Website

Generally speaking, dealing with forms, especially long ones, in responsive Web design is quite a challenge! The longer the form, the more complicated it is to adapt to small devices. The physical adaptation is not that hard; most designers will simply put the form’s elements into a single column and stretch the inputs to the full width of the screen. But making forms visually appealing isn’t enough; we have to make them easy to use on mobile, too.

For starters, Luke Wroblewski advises to avoid textual input and instead to rely on checkboxes, radio buttons and select drop-down menus wherever possible. This way, the user has to enter as little information as possible. Another tip is not to make the user press the “Send” button before getting feedback about the content of their submission. On-the-fly error-checking is especially important on mobile, where most forms are longer than the height of the screen. If the user has mistyped in a field and has to send the form to realize it, then chances are they won’t even see where they mistyped.

In the future, the new HTML5 form inputs and attributes will be a great help to us in building better forms, without the need for (much) JavaScript. For instance, you could use the required attribute to give feedback about a particular field on the fly. Unfortunately, support for this on mobile devices is poor right now. The autocomplete attribute could also help to make forms more responsive.

A mobile phone is a personal possession, so we can assume that data such as name and postal address will remain consistent. Using the autocomplete HTML5 attribute, we could prefill such fields so that the user doesn’t have to type all of that information over and over. There is also a whole list of new HTML5 inputs that can be used in the near future to make forms more responsive.

Dates in form elements are a good example of what can be improved with HTML5. We used to rely on JavaScripts to create date-pickers. Those pickers are quite usable on big desktop screens but very hard to use on touch devices. Selecting the right date with a finger is difficult when the touch zones are so small.

Different picker examples
How am I supposed to select a date when my finger is touching three dates at the same time?

A promising solution lies in the new HTML5 input type="date", which sets a string in the format of a date. The HTML5 input type="datetime" sets a string in the format of a date and time. The big advantage of this method is that we let the browser decide which UI to use. This way, the UI is automatically optimized for mobile phones. Here is what an input type="date" looks like on the desktop, on an Android phone and tablet (with the Chrome browser), and on the iPhone and iPad.

Mobile input type=date rendering
Renderings of input type="date" on different mobile devices.

Note that the screenshots were taken in my browser and on the Android phone, so the language automatically adapted to the system language (French). By using native components, you no longer have to adapt the language into different versions of the website.

For now, support for input type="date" on the desktop is absent except in Opera and Chrome. Native Android browsers don’t support it at all, but Chrome for Android does, and so does Safari on iOS. A lot still has to get done in order for us to be able to use this solution on responsive websites. Meanwhile, you could use a polyfill such as Mobiscroll for mobile browsers that don’t support it natively.

Apart from these HTML5 input solutions, attempts have been made to improve other design patterns, such as passwords on mobile and complex input formatting using masks. As you will notice, these are experimental. The perfect responsive form does not exist at the moment; a lot still has to be done in this field.

Dealing With Tables on a Responsive Website

Another content type that gets pretty messy on mobile and responsive websites is tables. Most table are oriented horizontally and present a lot of data at once, so you can see how getting it right on a small screen is pretty hard. HTML tables are fairly flexible — you can use percentages to change the width of the columns — but then the content can quickly become unreadable.

No one has yet found the perfect way to present tables, but some suggestions have been made.

One approach is to hide what could be considered “less important” columns, and provide checkboxes for the user to choose which columns to see. On the desktop, all columns would be shown, while on mobile, the number of columns shown would depend on the screen’s size. The Filament Group explains this approach and demonstrates it in one of its articles. The solution is also used in the table column toggle on jQuery Mobile.

Responsive table examples
Some examples of responsive tables.

A second approach plays with the idea of a scrollable table. You would “pin” a single fixed-size column on the left and then leave a scroll bar on a smaller part of the table to the right. David Bushell implements this idea in an article, using CSS to display all of the content in the <thead> on the left side of the table, leaving the user to scroll through the content on the right. Zurb uses the same idea but in a different way for its plugin. In this case, the headers stay at the top of the table, and the table is duplicated with JavaScript so that only the first column is shown on the left, and all other columns are shown on the right with a scroll bar.

Responsive table overflow example
Two examples of scrollable responsive tables

The big issue with scroll bars and CSS properties such as overflow: auto is that many mobile devices and tablets simply won’t display a visible scroll bar. The right area of the table will be scrollable, but the user will have no visual clue that that’s possible. We have to find some way to indicate that more content lies to the right.

A third approach is to reflow a large table and split up the columns into what essentially looks like list items with headings. This technique is used in the “reflow mode” on jQuery Mobile and was explained by Chris Coyier in his article “Responsive Data Tables.”

Responsive table reflow example
Reflowing a table responsively

Many other techniques exist. Which to use depends heavily on your project. No two projects are the same, so I can only show you how other people have dealt with it. If you come up with a nice solution of your own, please share it with the world in the comments below, on Twitter or elsewhere. We are in this boat together, and tables suck on mobile, really, so let’s improve them together!

Embedding Third-Party Content: The Responsive Iframe Problem

Many websites consist of embedded third-party content: YouTube or Vimeo videos, SlideShare presentations, Facebook applications, Twitter feeds, Google Maps and so on. A lot of those third parties make you use iframes to embed their content. But let’s face it: iframes are a pain to deal with in responsive design. The big problem is that iframes force a fixed width and height directly in your HTML code. Forcing a 100% width on the iframe would work, but then you would lose the ratio of the embedded content. To embed a video or slideshow and preserve the original ratio, you would have to find a workaround.

An HTML and CSS Workaround

Thierry Koblentz has written a good article titled “Creating Intrinsic Ratios for Video,” in which he proposes a way to embed responsive videos using a 16:9 ratio. This solution can be extended to other sorts of iframe content, such as SlideShare presentations and Google Maps. Koblentz wraps the iframe in a container with a class that we can target in CSS. The container makes it possible for the iframe to resize fluidly, even if the iframe has fixed pixel values in the HTML. The code, adapted by Anders M. Andersen, looks like this:


 .embed-container  {
   position: relative;
   padding-bottom: 56.25%; /* 16:9 ratio */
   padding-top: 30px; /* IE 6 workaround*/
   height: 0;
   overflow: hidden;
}

.embed-container iframe,
.embed-container object,
.embed-container embed {
   position: absolute;
   top: 0;
   left: 0;
   width: 100%;
   height: 100%;
}

This will work for all iframes. The only potential problem is that you will have to wrap all of the iframes on your website in a <div class="embed-container"> element. While this would work for developers who have total control over their code or for clients who are reasonably comfortable with HTML, it wouldn’t work for clients who have no technical skill. You could, of course, use some JavaScript to detect iframe elements and automatically embed them in the class. But as you can see, it’s still a major workaround and not a perfect solution.

Dealing With Responsive Video In Future

HTML5 opens a world of possibilities for video — particularly with the video element. The great news is that support for this element is amazingly good for mobile devices! Except for Opera Mini, most major browsers support it. The video element is also pretty flexible. Presenting a responsive video is as simple as this:


video {
   max-width: 100%;
   height: auto;
}

You’re probably asking, “What’s the problem, then?”

The problem is that, even though YouTube or Vimeo may support the video element, you still have to embed videos using the ugly iframe method. And that, my friend, sucks. Until YouTube and Vimeo provide a way to embed videos on websites using the HTML5 video tag, we have to find workarounds to make video embedding work on responsive websites. Chris Coyier created such a workaround as a jQuery plugin called FitVids.js. It uses the first technique mentioned above: creating a wrapper around the iframe to preserve the ratio.

Embedding Google Maps

If you embed a Google Map on your website, the technique described above with the container and CSS will work. But, again, it’s a dirty little hack. Moreover, the map will resize in proportion and might get so tiny that the map loses the focus area that you wanted to show to the user. The Google Maps’ page for mobile says that you can use the static maps API for mobile embedding. Using a static map would indeed make the iframe problems go away. Brad Frost wrote a nice article about, and created a demo of, adaptive maps, which uses this same technique. A JavaScript detects the screen’s size, and then the iframe is replaced by the static map for mobile phones. As you can tell, we again have to resort to a trick to deal with the iframe problem, in the absence of a “native” solution (i.e. from Google).

We Need Better APIs

And now the big question: Is there a better way? The biggest problem with using iframes to embed third-party content responsively is the lack of control over the generated code. Developers and designers are severely dependent on the third party and, by extension, its generated HTML. The number of websites that provide content to other websites is growing quickly. We’ll need much better solutions than iframes to embed this content.

Let’s face it: embedding Facebook’s iframe is a real pain. The lack of control over the CSS can make our work look very sloppy and can even sometimes ruin the design. The Web is a very open place, so perhaps now would be a good time to start thinking about more open APIs! In the future, we will need APIs that are better and simpler to use, so that anyone can embed content flexibly, without relying on unresponsive fixed iframes. Until all of those very big third parties decide to create those APIs, we are stuck with sloppy iframes and will have to resort to tricks to make them workable.

Responsive Navigation: An Overview Of Current Solutions

Another big challenge is what to do with navigation. The more complex and deep the architecture of the website, the more inventive we have to be.

An early attempt to deal with this in a simple way was to convert the navigation into a dropdown menu for small screens. Unfortunately, this was not ideal. First, this solution gets terribly complicated with multiple-level navigation. It can also cause some problems with accessibility. I recommend “Stop Misusing Select Menus” to learn about all of the problems such a technique can create.

Some people, including Brad Frost and Luke Wroblewski, have attempted to solving this problem. Brad Frost compiled some of his techniques on the website This Is Responsive, under the navigation section.

Toggle navigation involves hiding the menu for small devices, displaying only a “menu” link. When the user clicks on it, all of the other links appear as block-level elements below it, pushing the main content below the navigation.

A variant of this, inspired by some native application patterns, is off-canvas navigation. The navigation is hidden beneath a “menu” link or icon. When the user clicks the link, the navigation slides out as a panel from the left or right, pushing the main content over.

Toggle navigation example
Some examples of toggle navigation

The problem with these techniques is that the navigation remains at the top of the screen. In his article “Responsive Navigation: Optimizing for Touch Across Devices,” Luke Wroblewski illustrates which zones are easily accessible for different device types. The top left is the hardest to get to on a mobile device.

Easy touch access for mobile and tablet
Easily accessible screen areas on mobile phones and tablets, according to Luke Wroblewski.

Based on this, Jason Weaver created some demos with navigation at the bottom. One solution is a footer anchor, with navigation put at the bottom of the page for small devices, and a “menu” link that sends users there. It uses the HTML anchor link system.

Many other attempts have been made to solve the navigation problem in responsive Web design. As you can see, there is not yet a perfect solution; it really depends on the project and the depth of the navigation. Fortunately for us, some of the people who have tried to crack this nut have shared their experiences with the community.

Another unsolved issue is what icon to use to tell the user, “Hey! There’s a menu hidden under me. Click me!” Some websites have a plus symbol (+), some have a grid of squares, other have what looks like an unordered list, and some have three lines (aka the burger icon).

Some responsive icons example
To see these icons used on real websites, have a look at “We Need a Standard ‘Show Navigation’ Icon for Responsive Web Design.”

The main problem is figuring out which of these icons would be the most recognizable to the average user. If we all agreed to use one of them, users would be trained to recognize it. The problem is which to choose? I really would like to know which icon you use, so don’t hesitate to share it in the comments below.

Mobile Specificities: “Is The User On A Mobile Device? If So, What Can It Do?”

Mobile and tablet devices are a whole new world, far removed from desktop computers, with their own rules, behaviors and capabilities. We might want to adapt our designs to this new range of capabilities.

Detecting Touch Capabilities With Native JavaScript

Apart from screen size, I bet if you asked what is the main difference between desktop and mobile (including tablets), most people would say touch capability. There is no mouse on a mobile phone (no kidding!), and except for some rare hybrid devices into which you can plug a mouse, you can’t do much with mouse events on a tablet. This means that, depending on the browser, the :hover CSS pseudo-class might not work. Some browsers are clever enough to provide a native fallback for the hover event by translating it into a touch event. Unfortunately, not all browsers are so flexible. Creating a design that doesn’t depend on hidden elements being revealed on :hover events would be wise.

Catching touch events could also be another solution. A W3C working group has started working on a touch event specification. In the future, we will be able to catch events such as touchstart, touchmove and toucheend. We will be able to deal with these events directly in JavaScript without requiring a third-party framework such as Hammer.js or jGestures. But JavaScript is one thing — what about CSS?

CSS Level 4 “Pointer” Media Query

CSS Level 4 specifies a new media query called “pointer”, which can be used to query the presence and accuracy of a pointing device, such as a mouse. The media query takes one of three values:

  • none
    The device does not have any pointing device at all.
  • coarse
    The device has a pointing device with limited accuracy; for example, a mobile phone or tablet with touch capabilities, where the “pointer” would be a finger.
  • fine
    The device has an accurate pointing device, such as a mouse, trackpad or stylus.

Using this media query, we can enlarge buttons and links for touch devices:


@media  (pointer:coarse) {
   input[type="submit"],
       a.button {
       min-width: 30px;
       min-height: 40px;
       background: transparent;
   }
 }

The pointer media query is not yet supported and is merely being proposed. Nevertheless, the potential is huge because it would enable us to detect touch devices via CSS, without the need for a third-party library, such as Modernizr.

CSS Level 4 “Hover” Media Query

The CSS Level 4 specification proposes a new hover media query, which detects whether a device’s primary pointing system can hover. It returns a Boolean: 1 if the device supports hover, 0 if not. Note that it has nothing to do with the :hover pseudo-class.

Using the hover media query, we can enhance an interface to hide certain features for devices that do support hovering. The code would look something like this:


 @media  (hover) {
   .hovercontent { display: none; } /* Hide content only for devices with hover capabilities. */

   .hovercontent:hover { display: block; }    
 }

It can also be used to create dropdown menus on hover; and the fallback for mobile devices is in native CSS, without the need for a feature-detection framework.

CSS Level 4 Luminosity Media Query

Another capability of mobile devices is the luminosity sensor. The CSS Level 4 specification has a media query for luminosity, which gives us access to a device’s light sensors directly in the CSS. Here is how the specification describes it:

“The “luminosity” media feature is used to query about the ambient luminosity in which the device is used, to allow the author to adjust style of the document in response.”

In the future, we will be able to create websites that respond to ambient luminosity. This will greatly improve user experiences. We will be able to detect, for example, exceptionally bright environments using the washed value, adapting the website’s contrast accordingly. The dim value is used for dim environments, such as at nighttime. The normal value is used when the luminosity level does not need any adjustment.

The code would look something like this:


 @media  (luminosity: washed) {
   p { background: white; color: black; font-size: 2em; }
 }

As you can see, CSS Level 4 promises a lot of fun new stuff. If you are curious to see what’s in store, not only mobile-related, then have a look at “Sneak Peek Into the Future: Selectors, Level 4.”

More Mobile Capabilities to Detect Using APIs and JavaScript

Many other things could be detected to make the user experience amazing on a responsive website. For example, we could gain access to the native gyroscope, compass and accelerometer to detect the device’s orientation using the HTML5 DeviceOrientationEvent. Support for DeviceOrientationEvent in Android and iOS browsers is getting better, but the specification is still a draft. Nevertheless, the API look promising. Imagine playing full HTML5 games directly in the browser.

Another API that would be particularly useful for some mobile users is geolocation. The good news is that it’s already well supported. This API enables us to geolocate the user using GPS and to infer their location from network signals such as IP address, RFID, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth MAC addresses. This can be used on some responsive websites to provide users with contextual information. A big restaurant chain could enhance its mobile experience by showing the user the locations of restaurants in their area. The possibilities are endless.

The W3C also proposed a draft for a vibration API. With it, the browser can provide tactile feedback to the user in the form of vibration. This, however, is creeping into the more specific field of Web applications and mobile games in the browser.

Another API that has been highly discussed is the network information API. The possibility of measuring a user’s bandwidth and optimizing accordingly has seduced many developers. We would be able to serve high-quality images to users with high bandwidth and low-quality images to users with low bandwidth. With the bandwidth attribute of the network API, it would be possible to estimate the downloading bandwidth of a user in megabytes per second. The second attribute, metered, is a Boolean that tells us whether the user has a metered connection (such as from a prepaid card). These two attributes are currently accessible only via JavaScript.

Unfortunately, measuring a user’s connection is technically difficult, and a connection could change abruptly. A user could go into a tunnel and lose their connection, or their speed could suddenly drop. So, a magical media query that measures bandwidth looks hypothetical at the moment. Yoav Weiss has written a good article about the problems that such a media query would create and about bandwidth measurement, “Bandwidth Media Queries? We Don’t Need ’Em!

Many other APIs deal with mobile capabilities. If you are interested in learning more, Mozilla has a very detailed list. Most are not yet fully available or standardized, and most are intended more for Web applications than for responsive websites. Nevertheless, it’s a great overview of how large and complex mobile websites could get in future.

Rethinking The Way We And The User Deal With Content

From a technical perspective, there are still a lot of challenges in dealing with content at a global scale. The mobile-first method has been part of the development and design process for a little while now. We could, for example, serve to mobile devices the minimum data that is necessary, and then use JavaScript and AJAX to conditionally load more content and images for desktops and tablets. But to do this, we would also have to rethink how we deal with content and be able to prioritize in order to generate content that is flexible enough and adaptive. A good example of this is the responsive map solution described above: we load an image for mobile, and enhance the experience with a real map for desktops. The more responsive the website, the more complex dealing with content gets. Flexible code can help us to format adaptive content.

One way suggested by some people in the industry is to create responsive sentences by marking up sentences with a lot of spans that have classes, and then displaying certain ones according to screen size. Trimming parts of sentences for small devices is possible with media queries. You can see this technique in action on 37signals’ Signal vs. Noise blog and in Frankie Roberto’s article “Responsive Text.” Even if such technique could be used to enhance small parts of a website, such as the footer slogan, applying it to all of the text on a website is hard to imagine.

This raises an issue in responsive Web design that will become more and more important in future: the importance of meta data and the semantic structure of content. As mentioned, the content on our websites does not only come from in-house writers. If we want to be able to automatically reuse content from other websites, then it has to be well structured and prepared for it. New HTML5 tags such as article and section are a good start to gaining some semantic meaning. The point is to think about and structure content so that a single item (say, a blog post) can be reused and displayed on different devices in different formats.

The big challenge will be to make meta data easily understandable to all of the people who are part of the content creation chain of the website. We’ll have to explain to them how the meta data can be used to prioritize content and be used to programmatically assemble content, while being platform-independent. A huge challenge will be to help them start thinking in terms of reusable blocks, rather than a big chunk of text that they copy and paste from Microsoft Word to their WYSIWYG content management system. We will have to help them understand that content and structure are two separate and independent things, just as when designers had to understand that content (HTML) and presentation (CSS) are best kept separate.

We can’t afford to write content that is oriented towards one only platform anymore. Who knows on which devices our content will be published in six months, or one year? We need to prepare our websites for the unexpected. But to do so, we need better publishing tools, too. Karen McGrane gave a talk on “Adapting Ourselves to Adaptive Content,” with some real example from the publishing industry. She speaks about the process of creating reusable content and introduces the idea of COPE: create once and publish everywhere. We need to build better CMSes, ones that can use and generate meta data to prioritize content. We need to explain to people how the system works and to think in terms of modular reusable content objects, instead of WYSIWYG pages. As McGrane says:

“You might be writing three different versions of that headline; you might be writing two different short summaries and you are attaching a couple of different images to it, different cut sizes, and then you may not be the person who is in charge of deciding what image or what headline gets displayed on that particular platform. That decision will be made by the metadata. It will be made by the business rules. […] Metadata is the new art direction.”

Truncating content for small devices is not a future-proof content strategy. We need CMSes that provide the structure needed to create such reusable content. We need better publishing workflows in CMSes, too. Clunky interfaces scare users, and most people who create content are not particularly comfortable with complicated tools. We will have to provide them with tools that are easy to understand and that help them publish clean, semantic content that is independent of presentation.

Conclusion

As long as this article is, it only scratches the surface. By now, most of Smashing Magazine’s readers understand that responsive Web design is much more than about throwing a bunch of media queries on the page, choosing the right breakpoints and doubling the size of images for those cool new high-density phones. As you can see, the path is long, and we are not there yet. There are still many unsolved issues, and the perfect responsive solution does not exist yet.

Some technical solutions might be discovered in future using some of the new technologies presented here and with the help of the W3C, the WHATWG and organizations such as the Filament Group.

More importantly, we Web designers and developers can help to find even better solutions. People such as Luke Wroblewski and Brad Frost and all of the amazing women and men mentioned in this article are experimenting with a lot of different techniques and solutions. Whether any succeeds or fails, the most important thing is to share what we — as designers, developers, content strategists and members of the Web design community — are doing to try to solve some of the challenges of responsive Web design. After all, we are all in the same boat, trying to make the Web a better place, aren’t we?

(al) (ea)

© Stéphanie Walter for Smashing Magazine, 2013.

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