What’s the Future of Responsive Web Design?

I had the great pleasure of delivering
the closing keynote at
Responsive Day Out 3: The Final
. Held in Brighton, UK, on 19 June 2015, the conference was
a gathering of designers and developers sharing their workflow strategies,
techniques, and experiences with responsive web design.

Here’s what I had to say.

Closing Keynote

Today has provided an amazing tour of the
world of responsive design. We’ve seen how to level up our workflows and
processes. We’ve learned new ways to improve the accessibility of our products.
We’ve grappled with modern CSS and HTML capabilities that help us embrace the
hugely variable display sizes that swirl and whirl around us.

We’ve explored the future of modular code
and browsers’ capacity for working without network connectivity. And we’ve even
taken a trip into the possible future of where the web might go.

Cover of A List Apart magazine showing Responsive Web Design headline

We’ve come a long way since Ethan’s article, fluid grids,
flexible media, and media queries. Those three tenets sowed a seed that has
grown and flourished as we have come to better understand the implications of
device proliferation. We’ve seen that the web is capable of going anywhere and
doing pretty much anything.

I would argue that “Responsive Web Design” was
the first article that really managed to capture the concepts that John Allsopp
had discussed so many years before in “A Dao of Web Design” and
distilled them into something the design and development community could really
sink their teeth into. It provided a concrete example of the web’s ability to
flex and mold itself into whatever shape it needed to take on.

It was the first time many designers had
come to terms with the idea that “experience” was not some monolithic thing.

Sure, many of us in the web standards
community had been talking the talk and walking the walk with regard to progressive
. And we were gaining converts, but progress was slow. Ethan
demonstrated—directly and succinctly—what the progressive enhancement of visual
design could look like.

Providing an identical experience for each
and every human being that tries to access our sites would be impossible. There
are simply far too many factors to consider. We’ve got screen size, display
density, CPU speed, amount of RAM, sensor availability, feature availability,
interface methods … breathe … operating system type, operating
system version, browser type, browser version, plug-ins installed, network
speed, network latency, network congestion, firewalls, proxies, routers, and
probably a dozen other factors my mind is incapable of plucking amid the
whirlwind of technical considerations.

And that doesn’t even consider our

When it comes to the people we need to reach
for our work to actually matter, we have to consider literacy level, reading
acumen, level of domain knowledge, cognitive impairments like learning
disabilities and dyslexia, attention deficit issues, environmental
distractions, vision impairment, hearing impairment, motor impairment, how much
they understand how to use their device, how much they understand how to use
their browser, how well-versed in common web conventions they are, and a ton of
other “human factors”.

Every person is different and everyone
comes to the web with their own set of special needs. Some are always with
them, blindness for example. Others are transient, like breaking your mousing
arm. Still others are purely situational and dependent on the device you are
using at the time and its technical capabilities or constraints.

Trying to devise one monolithic experience
for each and every person to have in every context that considers every factor
would be impossible. And yet, Sir Tim Berners-Lee had a vision for a web that
was capable of going anywhere. Was he insane?

Sir Tim’s vision for the
 was that content could be created once and accessed from anywhere.
Disparate but related pieces of “hypermedia” scattered across the globe could
be connected to one another via links. Moreover, they would be retrievable by
anyone on any device capable of reading HTML. For free.

Ultimately, Sir Tim envisioned universal

For a great many of us, ensuring our
websites are accessible is an afterthought. We talk a good game when it comes
to “user-centered” this or that, but often treat the word “accessibility” as a
synonym for “screen reader”. It’s so much more than that. “Accessibility” is
about people. People consume content and use interfaces in many different ways,
some similar and some quite dissimilar to how we do it.

Sure, people with visual impairments often
use a screen reader to consume content. But they might also use a braille touch
feedback device or a braille printer. They probably also use a keyboard. Or
they may use a touchscreen in concert with audio cues. Or they may even use a
camera to allow them to “read” content via OCR and text-to-speech. And yes,
visual impairment affects a decent percentage of the populace (especially as we
age), but it is only part of the “accessibility” puzzle.

The contrast between text and the
background is an important factor in ensuring content remains readable in
different lighting situations. Color choice is an accessibility concern.

The language we use on our sites and in our
interfaces directly affects how easy it is for our users to understand what we
do, the products we are offering, and why it matters. It also affects how we
make our users feel about themselves, their experience, and our companies.
Language is an accessibility concern.

The size of our web pages has a direct
effect on how long our pages take to download, how much it costs our customers
to access them, and (sometimes) even whether or not the content can be reached.
Performance is an accessibility concern.

I could keep going, but I’m sure you get
the point.

Accessibility is about providing good
experiences for everyone, regardless of physical or mental abilities, gender,
race, or language. It recognizes that we all have special needs—physical
limitations, bandwidth limitations, device limitations—that may require us to
experience the same interface in different ways.

When I visit a website on my phone, for
example, I am visually limited by my screen resolution (especially if I am
using a browser that encourages zooming) and I am limited in my ability to
interact with buttons and links because I am browsing with my fingertips, which
are larger and far less accurate than a mouse cursor.

On a touchscreen, I may need the experience
to be slightly different, but I still need to be able to do whatever it is I
came to the site to do. I need an experience, but moreover I
need the appropriate experience.

Embracing the reality that experience doesn’t
need to be just one thing will help us reach more people with fewer headaches.
Experience can—and should—be crafted as a continuum. This is progressive
enhancement: We start with a baseline experience that works for
everyone—content, real links, first generation form controls, and forms that
actually submit to the server. Then we build up the experience from there.

Animated Gif showing different routes to the same end result

Your browser supports HTML5 form controls?
Great! You’ll get a better virtual keyboard when you go to type your email
address. You can use CSS? Awesome, let me make that reading experience better
for you. Oh, you can handle media queries! Let me adjust the layout so those
line lengths are a little more comfortable. Wow, your browser supports Ajax?!
Here, let me load in some teasers for related content you might find

Imagine sitting down in a restaurant, only
to have the waiter immediately bring you a steak. But you’re a vegetarian. You
ask if they offer something you can eat and they politely reply: “Oh I’m
sorry, meat is a requirement. Why don’t you just eat meat? It’s easy! You’re
really missing out on some tasty food.”
 No waiter who actually cares
about your experience would do that.

And yet we—as an industry—don’t seem to
have any problem telling someone they need to change their browser to
accommodate us. That’s just wrong. Our work is meaningless without users. We
should be bending over backwards to attract and retain them. This is customer
service 101.

This comes back to Postel’s law, which
Jeremy often recounts:

Be conservative in what you do, be
liberal in what you accept from others.

We need to be lax when it comes to browser
support and not make too many (or better yet any) assumptions about what we can

Of course this is not an approach everyone
in our industry is ready to embrace, so I’ll offer another quote I come back to
time and time again…

When something happens, the only thing
in your power is your attitude toward it; you can either accept it or resent it.

We can’t control the world, we can only
control our reaction to it.

Now those of you who’ve gathered for this
final Responsive Day Out (or who are following along at home) probably
understand this more than most. We feel the constant bombardment of new
devices, screen sizes, and capabilities. The only way I’ve found to deal with
all of this is to accept it, embrace the diversity, and view device and browser
proliferation as a feature, not a bug.

It’s up to us to educate those around us
who have—either by accident or intent—not accepted that diversity is the
reality we live in and things are only going to get crazier. Burying our heads
in the sand is not an option.

When I am trying to help folks understand
and embrace diversity, I often reach for one of my favorite thought exercises
from John Rawls.

Photo of the philosopher John Rawls 1921 to 2002

Rawls was a philosopher who used to run a
social experiment with students, church groups, and the like.

In the experiment, participants were
allowed to create their ideal society. It could follow any philosophy: It could
be a monarchy or democracy or anarchy. It could be capitalist or socialist. The
people in this experiment had free rein to control absolutely every facet of
the society… but then he’d add the twist: They could not control what position
they occupied in that society.

This twist is what John Harsanyi—an early
game theorist—refers to as the “Veil of Ignorance”. What Rawls found, time and time again, was that individuals participating in
the experiment would gravitate toward creating the most egalitarian societies.

It makes sense: what rational,
self-interested human being would treat the elderly, the sick, people of a
particular gender, race, creed, or color poorly if they could find themselves
in that very same position when the veil is pulled away?

The things we do to accommodate special
needs now pay dividends in the future. Look at ramps.

Ramps on a pavement

They’re a classic example of an accessibility
feature for people in wheelchairs that also benefit people who aren’t in them: people toting luggage, delivery services hauling heavy things on dollies,
parents pushing children (or their dressed up dogs) in strollers, a commuter
walking her bike, and that guy who just prefers walking up a gentle incline to
expending the effort required to mount a step.

When we create alternative paths to get
from Point A to Point B, people can take the one most appropriate for them,
whether by choice or necessity. And everyone can accomplish their goals.

We all have special needs. Some we’re born
with. Some we develop. Some are temporary. Some have nothing to do with us
personally, but are situational or purely dependent on the hardware we are
using, the interaction methods we have available to us, or even the speed at
which we can access the Internet or process data.

What is responsive web design about if not
accessibility? Yes, its fundamental tenets are concerned with visual design,
but in terms of the big picture, they’re all about providing the best possible
reading experience.

As practitioners of responsive design, we
understand the benefits of adapting our interfaces. We understand fallbacks. We
understand how to design robust experiences that work under a wide variety of
conditions. Every day we broaden the accessibility of our products.

These skills will make us invaluable as
technology continues to offer novel ways of consuming and interacting with our

We’re just starting to dip or toes—er, hands—into
the world of motion-based gestural controls. Sure, we’ve had them in two
dimensions on touch screens for a while now but three dimensional motion-based
controls are only beginning to appear. You can see a demo of gestural controls at around the 41-second mark in the following video:

The first big leap in this direction
was Kinect on the
Xbox 360 (and later, Windows). With Kinect, we interact with the computer using
body movements like raising a hand (which gets Kinect to pay attention),
pushing our hand forward to click/tap, and grasping to drag the canvas in a
particular direction.

The Kinect ushered in a major revolution in
terms of interfacing with computers, but from an interaction perspective, it
presents similar challenges to those of the Wii controller and
Sony’s PlayStation
. Large body gestures like raising your hand (or a wand controller) can
be tiring.

They’re also not terribly accurate. If you
thought that touchscreen accuracy was an issue, hand gestures like those for
the Kinect or LEAP
 pose even more of a challenge.

To accommodate interactions like this
(which we currently have no way of detecting) we need to be aware of how easy
it is to click on interactive controls. We need to determine if our buttons and
links are large enough and whether there is enough space between them to ensure
our user’s intent is accurately conveyed to the browser. Two specs which can
help address this are Media Queries Level 4 and Pointer Events.

In Media Queries Level 4, we
became able to apply style rules to particular interaction contexts. For
instance, when we have very accurate control over our cursor (as in the case of
a stylus or mouse) or less accurate control (as in the case of a touch screen
or physical gesture):

Of course, we want to offer a sensible
default in terms of size and spacing as a fallback for older browsers and

We also have the ability to determine
whether the device is capable of hovering over an element and can adjust the
interface accordingly.

We still need to figure out how well all of
this ends up working on multimodal devices like the Surface tablet, however.
Will the design change as the user switches between input modes? Should it? To
that end, the spec also provides any-pointer and any-hoverto, allowing you to query for whether any supported
interaction method meets your requirements, but here’s a word of warning from
the spec:

Designing a page that relies on hovering
or accurate pointing only because 
any-hover or any-pointer indicate that an input mechanism with these capabilities is
available, is likely to result in a poor experience.

These media query options are starting to
roll out in Chrome, Mobile Safari, and Microsoft Edge, so it’s worth taking a
look at them.

Pointer Events is another
spec that is beginning to gain some traction. It generalizes interaction to a
single event rather than forcing us to silo experience into mouse-driven,
touch-driven, pen-driven, (sigh) force-driven, and so on.

We can unobtrusively detect support for
Pointer Events…

… and then handle them all in the same way
or create branches based on the pointerType:

Of course, in addition to considering the
level of accuracy our users have while interacting with our screens, we also
need to consider the potentially increased distance at which our users are
reading our content.

To that end, I’ve been experimenting with
the viewport width (vw) unit.

For a long time, I’ve used ems for the
layout’s max-width (so the line length is
proportional to the font size). I also use relative font sizes. With that as
the foundation, I can use a media query that matches the maximum width and set
the base font size at the vw equivalent at the max width.

Then the whole design will simply zoom the
layout when viewed beyond that size.

If you don’t want to turn something like
that on automatically, you can enable it to be toggled on and off with

Things get even crazier when you start to
factor in devices like the HoloLens. And no, I have not gotten to play with one
yet, but you can see a great demo at the 1:27 mark on this video:

But the idea of being able to drop a
resizable virtual screen on any surface presents some interesting possibilities
as a user and some unique challenges as a designer. HoloLens, of course, brings
with it gesture controls as well, so accounting for a variety of input types
should get us pretty far.

In a similar vein, we should begin to think
about what experiences can and should look like when we are browsing solely
with our gaze. Gaze tracking has its origins in the accessibility space as a
means of providing interface control to folks with limited or no use of their
hands. Traditionally, gaze tracking hardware has been several thousand dollars,
putting it out of the reach of many people, but that is starting to change.

In the last few years, the computational
power of our devices has increased as the hardware costs associated with
supporting gaze tracking have dropped dramatically. Looking around, you can see
gaze tracking beginning to move into the public sphere: Many smartphones and
smartwatches can recognize when you are looking at them (or at least they do
sometimes). This is only a short step away from knowing where on the screen you
are looking. And nearly every high-end smartphone is now equipped with a
front-facing camera, which makes them perfect candidates to provide this
interaction method.

You can see a great demo of the Sesame Phone’s facial tracking technology from the 18-second mark in this video:

The Sesame Phone was designed to
allow people to use a smartphone without using their hands. It uses facial
tracking to move a virtual cursor around the screen, allowing users to interact
with the underlying operating system as well as individual applications. It
supports tap, swipe, and other gestures (via a context menu) and is pretty
impressive in my experience. Technology like this enables people suffering from
MS, arthritis, Muscular Dystrophy, and more to use a smartphone and—more
importantly to us—browse the web.

The Eye
 and Fixational are
similarly working to bring eye tracking to smartphones and tablets. Eye
tracking is similar to face tracking, but the cursor follows your focus. Micro
gestures—blink, wink, etc.—allow you to interact with the device.

Even though most gaze-tracking software
mimics a mouse and has adjustable sensitivity, the accuracy of it as a pointer
device is not fantastic. When I’ve used the Sesame Phone, for instance, I’ve
had a hard time controlling the position of my head in order to hold the
cursor still to hover and click a button. I’m sure this would improve with practice,
but it’s safe to say that in a gaze interaction, larger, well‑spaced, and more
easily targeted links and buttons would be a godsend.

So far, I’ve focused on interaction methods
that facilitate navigation and consuming content. But what about filling out a
form? I can tell you that typing an email letter-by-letter on a virtual
keyboard, using your face, sucks…

Thankfully, most of these gestural
implementations are coupled with some form of voice recognition. The Kinect,
for instance, will accept verbal commands to navigate and accomplish tasks like
filling in forms. The Sesame Phone also supports voice commands for certain
basic actions, dictating email, and the like.

Coupled with voice, the alternative
interaction methods of Kinect and Sesame Phone work really well. But voice
interaction can stand on its own too.

Most of us are familiar with Apple’s SiriGoogle Now, and Microsoft’s Cortana.
These digital assistants are great at retrieving information from select
sources and doing other assistant-y things like calculating a tip and setting a
reminder. As far as interacting with the web, however, they don’t… yet. We can
engage with them, but they can‘t (necessarily) engage with a web page.

Exposing the information stored in our
webpages via semantic HTML and structured syntaxes like microformatsmicrodata, and RDFa should eventually
make our content available to these assistants, but we don’t really know. Their
various makers haven’t really given us any clue as to how to do that and, as it
stands right now, none of them can look up a web page and read it to you. For
that you need to invoke a screen reader.

Each company offers a first-party screen
reader. And all are capable of helping you interact with a page, including
helping you fill in forms, without having to see the page. And yet, these
technologies have not been coupled with their corresponding assistants. It
probably won’t be long before we see that happen.

When we start to consider how our websites
will be experienced in a voice context, the readability of our web pages
becomes crucial. Clear well-written prose and a logical source order will be an
absolute necessity. If our pages don’t make sense when read, what’s the point?

Content strategist Steph Hay views
interface as an opportunity to have a conversation with our users. Soon it
literally will be.

Interestingly, Microsoft has given us a
peek at what it might be like to design custom voice commands for our websites
beyond what the OS natively supports with Cortana. In other words, they let us
teach their assistant.

In Windows 10, installable web apps can
include a Voice
Command Definition (VCD) file
the head of the page to enable custom commands:

The referenced VCD file is simply an XML
file defining the keyword for the web app and commands that can be issued.

Using very basic syntax, the VCD identifies
optional pieces of a given phrase and variables Cortana should extract:

This particular app passes the captured
information over to JavaScript for processing. That’s right, Cortana
has a JavaScript API too
. Pretty neat.

But traditional computers and smart mobile
devices aren’t the only place we’re starting to see voice-based experiences. We
also have disembodied voices like Amazon’s Echo and the Ubi which are completely headless.

Amazons Echo and the Ubi

Right now, they both seem squarely focused
on helping your house become “smarter”—streaming music, adjusting the
thermostat, etc.—but it isn’t hard to imagine these devices becoming coupled
with the ability to browse and interact with the web.

In the near future, voice-based
interactions with the web will be entirely possible. They will likely suck a
bit at first, but they’ll get better.

I’m going to make a somewhat bold
prediction: while touch has been revolutionary in many ways toward improving
digital access, voice is going to be even more significant. Voice-based
interfaces will create new opportunities for people to interact with and
participate in the digital world.

Because we’ve been thinking about how the
experiences we create are consumable across a variety of devices, we’ve got the
jump on other folks working on the web when it comes to voice. We see
experience as a continuum, starting with text.

As voice technology matures, we will be the
ones people look to as the experts. We will empower the next generation of
websites and applications to become voice-enabled and in so doing, we will
improve the lives of billions. Because “accessibility” is not about disabilities,
it’s about access and it’s about people.

Sure, we’ll make it easier to look up movie
times and purchase tickets to see the latest Transformers debacle,
but we will also empower the nearly 900 million people globally—over 60% of
whom are women—that are illiterate. And that’s a population that has been
largely ignored on our dominantly textual web.

We will create new opportunities for the
poor and disadvantaged to participate in a world that has excluded them. You
may not be aware, but 80% of Fortune 500 companies—think Target, Walmart—only
accept job applications online or via computers. We will enable people who have
limited computer skills or who struggle with reading to apply for jobs with
these companies.

We can help bridge the digital divide and
the literacy gap. We can create opportunities for people to better their lives
and the lives of their families. We have the power to create more equity in
this world than most of us have ever dreamed.

This is an incredibly exciting time, not
just for the responsive design community, not just the web, but for the world!
The future is coming and I can’t wait to see how awesome you make it!

This is for everyone

Responsive Day Out 3: The Final
Breakpoint was held in Brighton, UK on 19 June 2015.

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