Unless you’ve been chained to a cubicle wall or have been perpetually stuck in endless meetings the last year, you’ve probably read about the explosion in Internet-enabled mobile devices. You might have even seen some statistics, like how 85% of people expect the experience on their device/smartphone to be at least as good as, or better than, the experience on their desktop/laptop computer.

If you work for an enterprise-level company and haven’t thought about Responsive Web Design, read on.

If you’ve already started thinking about it, you know the immense challenges ahead — this is exactly where most large companies find themselves right now.

What Responsive Web Design Means for Enterprises

As you begin to look into what it means to make a website responsive, you’ll find there’s a lot of talk around how to transition your current site and content so it can be more flexible. A lot of times, this discussion goes into the techniques on how to make a site "mobile ready/friendly."

Note the terms transition and technique.

When you think of Responsive Web Design (RWD for short) through those two terms, they make it seem like a trivial ordeal: Just pick a responsive web design technique, redevelop your CMS (or get a new one), and make it live. Transition complete.

Well, not so fast.

When it comes to large enterprise websites, instead of technique, we need to think in terms of strategy.

When we’re looking at transition, we need to think in terms of evolution.

For the enterprise, Responsive Web Design will not be an instant, easy peasy, "now-our-website-works-on-the-6,500-(and-counting)-different-types-of-mobile-devices" kind of ordeal.

Why is that?

It’s because there are several layers of issues we’re looking at:

  • A massive hierarchy of web content
  • Deep levels of site navigation
  • Large amounts of content stored in scary, legacy systems like SharePoint
  • Corporate-wide content structure/processes that don’t fit the multi-device present

We can’t begin to solve all these issues within this article, but we can at least look at a few things you should start considering today.

Responsive Web Design is a Goal

Let’s be honest here: We’re just figuring things out with Responsive Web Design to be able to deem exactly what the rules of engagement are.

We don’t know which devices are here to stay, let alone the ones that are coming out.

Many of the RWD techniques and approaches are just getting their footing. Sure, new techniques and gadgets matter, but not as much as what real people actually find useful and are making part of their lives. Some of the techniques will eventually become standards — so let the nerds at places like Universal Mind worry about that.

Trying to jump right into a Responsive Web Design project is hard, because where do you start?

You’re going to find two things in nearly every article or presentation offering advice about RWD: shocking statistics and dogmatic best practices. Things like "More people in the world have a mobile device than have running water!" help to convince you that mobile is really important. (Even more than the modern day convenience of a hot shower.)

Yes, we get it… Mobile is big thing. But if your current site isn’t mobile-ready/friendly by tomorrow, the world won’t really end, will it?

Having a mobile-ready/friendly site is important, but make sure you understand your customers and their needs before reacting to generalized statistics and practices that aren’t based on your situation. Most of the case studies I’ve seen, for example, are for smaller business sites that have the luxury of starting mobile first, or sites that have less than 30 pages of content. These folks can create very elegant solutions and have the flexibility to do so.

On the opposite end, there aren’t many great large business sites that reflect a comprehensive responsive implementation. Many larger sites create a responsive front-end and then within a 2-3 layers of hierarchy, they drop the user into the site’s old desktop/laptop-optimized web pages.

In short, large business sites seem to be approaching mobile-readiness in phases.

We typically find a reactionary decision from corporations to go for a quick win to meet some made-up initiatives or deadlines. But, remember, it’s a strategy and an evolution.

To reach the responsive goal you’ll need to set up a solid foundation. It will take guidelines, new processes, and a shift in thinking in how you build and maintain your website.

The key is to prepare your most important asset — your content — for this multi-device world.

"Get your content ready to go anywhere because it’s going to go everywhere."

- Brad Frost

Responsive is All About Content, Content, Content

Content is the lifeblood of your website. (This point could be made into an entire book — and it has been.)

A beautiful new site design has no purpose without great content. A user has no reason to visit your site without its content.

With the desktop-focused website design era, there wasn’t much of a need for a content diet. Content was stuffed into sites because we had a big screen to fill and we could download as much content as we wanted. Now we’re living with the consequences of our old willy-nilly content creation processes.

The kneejerk reaction is to show only a partial site/content on a mobile device because the screen is smaller and bandwidth assumed to always be limited.

That is completely wrong.

"Mobile is not lite. Mobile is not less."

- Josh Clark

Don’t buy into the myth that users on a device only want part of the information. It’s simply not true.

Users will access your content on both mobile devices and desktops; they won’t always be "snacking" on content on-the-go.

They might be sitting in a waiting room, or even in a restroom (you know you’re guilty of this). They will start shopping on a mobile device and end the transaction on a laptop or desktop. So if you’re only giving them part of the experience, you’ll get zero of the business.

As a company in this situation, you are already coming at this problem backwards, taking content from large containers and trying to pour it into a thousand smaller ones.

Try to move your thinking towards what types of content are truly meaningful, and how to make every sentence and image count. Spend time organizing and prioritizing your content. This is where you will make your move to responsive much easier.

A new website design, or just squishing and stacking current content in a responsive layout, only puts a temporary (and really awful) bandage over the real issue: Your content.

"If a piece of text or imagery is good enough in a mobile short format, if it communicates strongly and concisely what we need, why do we need more on a desktop?"

- Marek Wolski

Conclusion

Your company didn’t arrive in this current situation overnight. Nor did your competitors.

Many legacy CMSs and/or ecommerce systems are tapping into even older, legacy systems that companies avoided messing with due to cost when they moved to their current system. And most of these current systems that your content is in is pretty much duct-taped together.

It’s time to break the cycle. Take this as an opportunity to rethink your website development processes. Approach the challenge in bite-sized chunks based on your needs and that of your customers.

Start focusing on your content right away. It will make things much easier as you form a longer-term strategy and prepare your company for the "internet of things."

Author:

Francisco Inchauste is an interaction designer at Universal Mind, helping clients create great Web experiences. He regularly contributes to Web design blogs, magazines and books. He recently served as Editor of Smashing Magazine's UX Design section. You can connect with him on Twitter: @iamFinch, or read more on his blog: www.getfinch.com