Collaborative Responsive Design Workflows

Much has been written about workflow and designer-developer collaboration in web design, but many teams still struggle with this issue; either with how to adapt their internal workflow, or how to communicate the need for best practices like mobile first and progressive enhancement to their teams and clients. Christmas seems like a good time to have another look at what doesn’t work between us and how we can improve matters.

Why is it so difficult?

We’re still beginning to understand responsive design workflows, acknowledging the need to move away from static design tools and towards best practices in development. It’s not that we don’t want to change – so why is it so difficult?

Changing the way we do something that has become routine is always problematic, even with small things, and the changes today’s web environment requires from web design and development teams are anything but small.

Although developers also have a host of new skills to learn and things to consider, designers are probably the ones pushed furthest out of their comfort zones: as well as graphic design, a web designer today also needs an understanding of interaction design and ergonomics, because more and more websites are becoming tools rather than pages meant to be read like a book or magazine. In addition to that there are thousands of different devices and screen sizes on the market today that layout and interactions need to work on.

These aspects make it impossible to design in a static design tool, so beyond having to learn about new aspects of design, the designer has to either learn how to code or learn to work with a responsive design tool.

Why do it

That alone is enough to leave anyone overwhelmed, as learning a new skill takes time and slows you down in a project – and on most projects time is in short supply. Yet we have to make time or fall behind in the industry as others pitch better, interactive designs. For an efficient workflow, both designers and developers must familiarise themselves with new tools and techniques.

A designer has to be able to play with ideas, make small adjustments here and there, look at the result, go back to the settings and make further adjustments, and so on. You can only realistically do that if you are able to play with all the elements of a design, including interactivity, accessibility and responsiveness.

Figuring out the right breakpoints in a layout is one of the foremost reasons for designing in a responsive design tool. Even if you create layouts for three viewport sizes (i.e. smartphone, tablet and the most common desktop size), you’d only cover around 30% of visitors and you might miss problems like line breaks and padding at other viewport sizes.

Another advantage is consistency. In static design tools changes will not be applied across all your other layouts. A developer referring back to last week’s comps might work with outdated metrics. Furthermore, you cannot easily test what impact changes might have on previously designed areas. In a dynamic design tool such changes will be applied to the entire design and allow you to test things in site areas you had already finished.

No static design tool allows you to do this, and having somebody else produce a mockup from your static designs or wireframes will duplicate work and is inefficient.

How to do it

When working in a responsive design tool rather than in the browser, there is still the question of how and when to communicate with the developer. I have found that working with Sass in combination with a visual style guide is very efficient, but it does need careful planning: fundamental metrics for padding, margins and font sizes, but also design elements like sliders, forms, tabs, buttons and navigational elements, should be defined at the beginning of a project and used consistently across the site. Working with a grid can help you develop a consistent design language across your site.

Create a visual style guide that shows what the elements look like and how they behave across different screen sizes – and when interacted with. Put all metrics on paddings, margins, breakpoints, widths, colours and so on in a text document, ideally with names that your developer can use as Sass variables in the CSS. For example:

$padding-default-vertical: 1.5em;

Developers, too, need an efficient workflow to keep code maintainable and speed up the time needed for more complex interactions with an eye on accessibility and performance. CSS preprocessors like Sass allow you to work with variables and mixins for default rules, as well as style sheet partials for different site areas or design elements. Create your own boilerplate to use for your projects and then update your variables with the information from your designer for each individual project.

How to get buy-in

One obstacle when implementing responsive design, accessibility and content strategy is the logistics of learning new skills and iterating on your workflow. Another is how to sell it. You might expect everyone on a project (including the client) to want to design and develop the best website possible: ultimately, a great site will lead to more conversions. However, we often hear that people find it difficult to convince their teammates, bosses or clients to implement best practices.

Why is that? Well, I believe a lot of it is down to how we sell it. You will have experienced this yourself: some people you trust to know what they are talking about, and others you don’t. Think about why you trust that first person but don’t buy what the other one is telling you. It is likely because person A has a self-assured, calm and assertive demeanour, while person B seems insecure and apologetic. To sell our ideas, we need to become person A! For a timid designer or developer suffering from imposter syndrome (like many of us do in this industry) that is a difficult task. So how can we become more confident in selling our expertise?

Write

We need to become experts. And I mean not just in writing great code or coming up with beautiful designs but at explaining why we’re doing what we’re doing. Why do you code this way or that? Why is this the best layout? Why does a website have to be accessible and responsive? Write about it. Putting your thoughts down on paper or screen is a really efficient way of getting your head around a topic and learning to make a case for something. You may even find that you come up with new ideas as you are writing, so you’ll become a better designer or developer along the way.

Talk

Then, talk about it. Start out in front of your team, then do a lightning talk at a web event near you, then a longer talk or workshop. Having to talk about a topic is going to help you put into spoken words the argument that you’ve previously put together in writing. Writing comes more easily when you’re starting out but we use a different register when writing than talking and you need to learn how to speak your case. Do the talk a couple of times and after each talk make adjustments where you found it didn’t work well. By this time, you are more than ready to make your case to the client. In fact, you’ve been ready since that first talk in front of your colleagues ;)

Pitch

Pitches used to be based on a presentation of static layouts for for three to five typical pages and three different designs. But if we want to sell interactivity, structure, usability, accessibility and responsiveness, we need to demonstrate these things and I believe that it can only do us good. I have seen a few pitches sitting in the client’s chair and static layouts are always sort of dull. What makes a website a website is the fact that I can interact with it and smooth interactions or animations add that extra sparkle.

I can’t claim personal experience for this one but I’d be bold and go for only one design. One demo page matching the client’s corporate design but not any specific page for the final site. Include design elements like navigation, photography, typefaces, article layout (with real content), sliders, tabs, accordions, buttons, forms, tables (yes, tables) – everything you would include in a style tiles document, only interactive. Demonstrate how the elements behave when clicked, hovered and touched, and how they change across different screen sizes. You may even want to demonstrate accessibility features like tabbed navigation and screen reader use.

Obviously, there are many approaches that will work in different situations but don’t give up on finding a process that works for you and that ultimately allows you to build delightful, accessible, responsive user experiences for the web. Make time to try new tools and techniques and don’t just work on them on the side – start using them on an actual project. It is only when we use a tool or process in the real world that we become true experts. Remember your driving lessons: once the instructor had explained how to operate the car, you were sent to practise driving on the road in actual traffic!

About the author

Sibylle Weber is a front-end developer and designer living in Munich. After being a marketing manager in e-commerce she moved to the production side of the web where she is an evangelist for usability, accessibility and responsive design.

More articles by Sibylle

Comments