Lyza Danger Gardner spoke at Over the Air 2011 on mobile web design, and how we need to stop worrying and set our mobile web free. It was a really thought provoking talk, covering responsive web design and some mobile web best practices. We caught up with Lyza after the conference for a quick interview.
What do Cloud Four do?
Cloud Four is a small agency based in Portland, Oregon, on the west coast of the US. The four founders worked together for about a decade before we founded Cloud Four in 2007. We aim to meld our seriously deep combined experience in web technologies with the future of the web, which is not a dude sitting in a cubicle with a monitor and a desktop computer (or even a laptop). Well, actually, the dude is still part of the future, but the future is much larger than that. We build web sites to work for as many people as possible, for companies and organizations large and small. We also like to teach other people and other companies how they can be successful in this bizarre, magical landscape.
Why mobile web over apps?
I think this question can be dangerous. It’s not about web versus apps, nor about web being better than apps, necessarily. And setting up a ‘this versus that’ frame of reference gets us devs at each others’ throats in a weird religious way more than I’d like to see. I don’t want there to be camps and I don’t want everyone to have to choose a side; we’re all on the same team here. Ahem, that little soapbox aside, I can tell you why I think the web is so neat.
The web carries with it twin notions of democracy and universality. There isn’t a central agency evaluating what is and isn’t OK for the web, nor is there a single company in control of the technologies involved (though we do need to take care to maintain this). The web also works in a whole lot of places, meaning that stuff you build with the web by nature will work in a lot of places, obviating the need for in-depth, platform-specific development and specialization. No one owns it, and everyone can use it. OK, that’s a bit idealistic, but it’s the way I like to think.
What are the main problems facing mobile web design today?
It’s too hard. For even very experienced “traditional” web developers, moving into the mobile (or other device) web is so vastly complicated that I imagine lots of people are just throwing up their hands in exasperation. There are so many device-browser-OS-whatever combinations out there, each with its own unique set of Truly Baffling Bugs, that it is basically impossible to be sure you have something that works everywhere (or as near to it as possible). Things are moving fast enough, the landscape shifting so violently, that all mobile web devs are pretty dizzy, most of the time.
There is also a lack of agreement about philosophy, and a certain amount of good-natured but distracting bickering about the ungodliness of certain approaches or the inviolable brilliance of others.
What three tips would you give people who are trying to create a mobile web experience?
1. Relax. Everyone is having the same pain. We feel for you. The landscape is terrifyingly complex right now, but I believe after a while, we’ll reach the tipping point and things will finally smooth out bit. I sure hope so. Release some of your sense of control and let your content and the flexibility of the web do some heavy lifting for you—that is, don’t obsess over the little things. Of course, this all goes out the window a bit if you have a demanding client. But choosing your battles carefully is important.
2. Read and familiarize yourself with the tenets of http://futurefriend.ly, a manifesto that sets the groundwork for a way of thinking about the future of the web. In the coming bit here we’ll be pushing out more resources—there is a resources page on the site—with specific details about implementation and approaches.
3. Start simple, assuming you have the ability to start a project from scratch (sorry, if you don’t). By this I mean a combination of mobile-first approaches, simplified content, and simple implementation techniques. Start with a baseline, nutshell “experience” (I hate that word) that you want ALL of your users to have. Treat your core markup with the greatest of respect. From there, enhance. From there, zap the browser- or device-specific bugs (the ones that matter) that are plaguing you. This bottoms up, essentials-first approach is a key to keeping at least a modicum of your sanity. I think that one of the gifts the mobile web has to give us is the required laser-like focus on basics. It isn’t just for mobile—it’s applicable to the whole web.
What advice would you give people who need to educate their clients away from pixel-perfect cross-browser/device experience?
Plant the seed—flexibility, content flowing like water, letting the site adapt to different environments—as early as possible during the design planning phase. Introduce the idea of iterative design, and communicate your design not with pixel-perfect mockups but with documents that illustrate how the design will stretch and scale between set breakpoints. Get working, clickable, touchable, functional mockups or site prototypes into the hands of your clients as soon as possible, on as many devices as feasible, so that they can experience this idea in the flesh.
I recognize that this is not a shift that can happen overnight, and, as a dev, I’m not the foremost expert by any means about how to persuade customers. But my sense is that this is a gradual evolution of the web planning an design process that can start right now.
For more content from Over the Air 2011, check out our event page.