Should We Be Reactive?

Evolution

Looking at the evolution of the web and the devices we use should help remind us that the times we’re adjusting to are just another step on a journey. These times seem to be telling us that we need to embrace flexibility.

Imagine an HTML file containing nothing but text. It’s viewable on any web-capable device and reasonably readable: the notion of the universality of the web was very much a founding principle. Right from the beginning, browser vendors understood that we’d want text to reflow (why wouldn’t we?), so I consider the first websites to have been fluid.

As we attempted to exert more control through our designs in the early days of the web, debates about whether we should produce fixed or fluid sites raged. We could create fluid designs using tables, but what we didn’t have then was a wide range of web capable devices or the ability to control this fluidity. The biggest changes occurred when stats showed enough people using a different screen resolution we could cater for.

To me, the techniques of responsive web design provide the control we were missing. Combining new approaches to layout and images with media queries empowered us to learn how to embrace the inherent flexibility of the web in ways to suit our work and the devices used by our audience.

Perhaps another kind of flexibility might be found in how we use context to affect how we present our content; to consider how we might use the information we can access from people, browsers and devices to provide web experiences – effectively creating sites that react to initial or changing circumstances in the relationship between people and our content.

Embracing flexibility

So what is context? Put simply, you could think of it as a secondary piece of information that helps clarify the meaning of the first. It helps set a scene or describe circumstances. I think that Cennydd Bowles has summed it up really well through talks he’s given recently, in which he’s arrived at the acronym DETAILS (Device, Environment, Time, Activity, Individual, Location, Social) – I encourage you to keep an eye out for his next book due in the new year where he’ll explore this idea much further. This clarity over what context could mean in terms of what we do on the web is fundamental, directing us towards ways we might use it.

When you stop to think about it, we’ve been using some basic pieces of this information right from the beginning, like bits of JavaScript or Java applets that serve an appropriate greeting to your site’s visitors, or show their location, or even local weather. But what if we think of this from the beginning of our projects?

We should think about our content first. Once we know this and have a direction, perhaps then we can think about what context, or even multiple contexts, might help us to communicate more effectively.

The real world

There’s always been a disconnect between the real world and the web, which is to be expected. But the world around us is a sea of data; every fundamental building block: people, places, events and things have information waiting to be explored.

For sites based around physical objects or locations, this divide is really apparent. We don’t ordinarily take the time to describe in code the properties of a place, or consider whether your relationship to the place in the real world should have any impact on your relationship with a site about it.

When I think about local businesses, they have such rich properties to draw on and yet we don’t really explore them in any meaningful way, even through something as simple as opening hours.

Now we have data…

We’ve long had access to the current time both on server- and client-sides. The use of geolocation is easier than ever, but when we look at the range of information we could glean to help us make some choices, maybe there’s some help on the horizon from projects like the W3C Device APIs Working Group. This might prove useful to help make us aware of network and battery conditions of a device, along with the potential to gain data from other sensors, which could tell us about lighting conditions, ambient noise levels and temperature depending on the capabilities of the device.

It may be that our sites have some form of login or access to your profile from another site. Along with data from our devices and browsers, this should give us a sense of how best to talk to our audience in certain situations. We don’t necessarily need to know any personal details, just enough to make decisions about how to present our sites.

The reactive web?

So why reactive web design? I’m hoping that a name might help us to have a common vocabulary not only about what we mean when we talk about context, but how it could be considered through our projects, right from the early stages. How could this manifest itself?

A simple example might be a location-aware panel on your site. Perhaps the space is a little down in your content hierarchy but serves a perfectly valid purpose by default. To visitors outside the country perhaps this works fine, but within your country maybe this panel could be used to communicate more effectively. Further still, if we knew the visitors were in the vicinity, we could talk to them more directly.

What if both time and location were relevant? This space could work as before but you could consider how time could intersect with your local audience. If you know they’re local and it’s a certain time of day, you could communicate directly with them.

This example isn’t beyond what banner ads often do and uses easily accessible information. There are more unusual combinations we may be able to find, such as movement and presence. Perhaps a site that tells a story, which changes design and content based on whether you’re moving, how long you’ve been on the site and how far you’ve travelled. This isn’t what we typically expect from websites, but we should bear in mind that what websites are now will not be what they become in the future.

You could do much of this contextual presentation through native apps, of course. The Silent History, an app novel written and designed for iPad and iPhone, uses an exploration element, providing “hundreds of location-based stories across the U.S. and around the world. These can be read only when your device’s GPS matches the coordinates of the specified location.” But considering the universality of the web, we could redefine what web-based experiences should be like. Not all methods would work well on the web, but that’s a decision that has to be made for a specific project.

By thinking more broadly about any web-capable device, we can use what we know to provide relevant experiences for our site’s visitors. We need to be sure what we mean by relevant, of course!

Reality bites

While there are incredible possibilities, from a simple panel on a site to something bordering on living sites that evolve and change with our circumstances, we need to act with a degree of pragmatism and understand how much of what we could do is based on assumptions and the bias of our own experiences.

We could go wild with changing the way our content is presented based on contextual information, but if we’re not careful what we end up with confuses and could provide a very fractured experience. As much as possible we need to think more ethnographically, observe and question people in the situations we think may be relevant, and test our assumptions as early as we can. Even on small projects, there may be ways we can validate our assumptions and test with our audience. The key to applying contextual content or cues is not to break the experience between contextual views (as I think we now wouldn’t when hiding content on a mobile view).

It’s another instance of progressive enhancement – as we know certain pieces of information, we can enhance the experience. Also, if you do change content, how can you not make a more cumbersome experience for your visitors?

It’s all about communication

Content is at the core of what we do, but if we consider context we need to understand the impact on that. The effect could be as subtle as an altered hierarchy, involve swapping out panels of content, or in extreme instances perhaps all of your content might change. In some ways, this extends the notion of adaptive content that Karen McGrane has been talking about, to how we write and store the content we create. Thinking about the the impact of context may require us to re-evaluate our site structure, too. Whatever we decide, we have to be clear what will happen and manage the expectations of our users.

The bottom line

What I’m proposing isn’t that we go crazy and end up with a confused, disjointed set of experiences across the web. What I hope is that starting right from the beginning of a project, we think about what context is and could be, and see what relevance it might have to what we’re trying to communicate. This strategic process leads us to think about design.

We are slowly adapting to what it means to be flexible through responsive and adaptive processes. What does thinking about contextual states mean to us (or designing for state in general)? Does this highlight again how difficult it’ll be for our tools to keep up with our processes and output?

In terms of code, the vast majority of this data comes from the client-side through JavaScript. While we can progressively enhance, this could lead to a lot of code bloat through feature or capability detection, and potentially a lot of conditional loading of scripts. It’s a real shame we don’t get much we can rely on from the server-side – we know how unreliable user agents are!

We need to understand why we’d do this. Are we trying to communicate well and be useful, or doing it to show off? Underneath it all, what do we base our decisions on? Do we have actual insight or are we proceeding from our assumptions and the bias of our own experiences? Scott Jenson summed it up best for me: (to paraphrase) the pain we put people through has to be greatly outweighed by the value we offer.

I see that this could be another potential step in our evolution on the web; continuing this exploration of the flexibility the web allows us. It’s amazing we can do such incredible things from what is essentially a set of disparate, linked documents.

About the author

Dan Donald, based up near Manchester, currently tinkers with web things at BBC Sport, tries his hand from time to time at speaking, and tweets nonsense as @hereinthehive. He hopes to finally get big-picture-web-journal-thing Break the Page launched at some point before the end of the world. When not webbing it up he makes noise in Mark of 1000 Evils and stacks up side projects he’ll never get to.

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