As we quickly move into a non-desktop future, many readers now have more than one connected device. In fact, according to a recent study, more than 4.5 million users in the United States have more than 9 million connected devices.
It is this proliferation of screen sizes and devices that makes “responsive Web design” an attractive approach to building a news site for the future of the Web.
The concept of responsive design is to build a site that can adapt to the variety of screens and device capabilities. It was with this in mind that The Boston Globe embarked on a project in late 2010 to build its new subscription-only site, BostonGlobe.com, as a browser-based HTML5 Web app that adapts to different screens.
The site, launched in later part of 2011, works great on an iPad, taking advantage of touch capabilities and offline storage for reading when you don’t have a connection; it shrinks itself down to a smartphone-sized screen, reflowing to a single column, and even works well on a Blackberry and other devices.
A few changes in thinking about how we build Web sites were required — mostly that we think from a “mobile-first” standpoint, designing and coding that basic mobile experience that so many more people will see — then working our way up to a design that takes advantage of a full desktop-sized screen.
At The Globe, we designed for six different screen sizes and have plans to go even further, all the way up to TV-sized screens with designs that can be used from 10 feet away. This requires additional design, coding, and planning up front, but a responsive approach can be an appealing way to reach as many users as possible with a great user experience, without the need to building a native application in iOS, Android, or other operating systems. It also allows the publisher to control the e-commerce relationship with the user, not requiring the user to download an app where publishers must pay a percentage of the subscription to third parties.
That said, there are still times when native applications make sense for news sites, particularly where the distribution of the app store is necessary to reach your potential audience.
Advertising positions can be a thorny issue with a responsive site, requiring publishers to rethink ad sizes and determine what sizes and positions will make the most sense at each screen size. This makes the task of ad inventory management even more complex unless a trend of “responsive advertising” gains traction — an idea where a single ad adapts itself elegantly across different screen sizes. At the moment, such a trend has yet to take hold. That may change as more sites embrace responsive Web design.
At The Boston Globe, we have in six months been able to bring on 20,000 digital-only subscribers at a premium price point, with more than 120,000 of our print subscribers also signing up for access. Amongst our subscribers, we see a 50% larger number of mobile users than our non-responsive sites, which we believe is due to the flexibility of our responsive design across all of a user’s devices.
Author/Contact: Jeff Moriarty is vice president/digital products at The Boston Globe, based in Boston, Massachusetts, USA. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.