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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

The year responsive design starts to get weird

“Think it’s hard to adapt your content to mobile, tablet, and desktop? Just wait until you have to ask how this will also look on the smart TV. Or the refrigerator door. Or on the bathroom mirror.”

Over the past year, the idea of responsive web design has taken hold in a growing number of newsrooms. The Boston Globe launched a paywalled version of the Globe as a responsive experience at the end of 2011. Pay for the Globe online and it’ll work — and look good — on your mobile, your tablet, and your desktop just the same. One URL, three different presentations, making the most of the screen size you’ve got.

In 2012, the BBC, Time, and the Guardian, among others, rolled out responsive sites, while even more outlets added apps and projects that were rigged to fit any browser. Mashable went responsive earlier this month and promptly declared 2013 the Year of Responsive Design.

I think that’s only half right.

For everyone just tuning in, 2013 will be the Year of Responsive Design. For the nimble but not bleeding edge, 2013 will be the Year of Responsive Design. For lumbering, slow-to-adapt, drowning-in-enterprise-bullshit news organizations, maybe 2014 will be the year, but at least they’ll start talking about it in 2013. It just makes too much sense for an online news organization to have URLs that just work no matter what size screen hits it.

But for people living on the edge of technology, I think 2013 will be the year that Responsive Design Starts To Get Weird.

Buckle up, Future of Newsers.

Think it’s hard to adapt your content to mobile, tablet, and desktop? Just wait until you have to ask how this will also look on the smart TV. Or the refrigerator door. Or on the bathroom mirror.

Or on a user’s eye.

They’re all coming…if they aren’t already here. It doesn’t take much imagination or deep reading of the tech press to know that in 2013 more and more devices will connect to the internet and become another way for people to consume internets.

We’ll see the first versions of Google’s Project Glass in 2013. A set of smart glasses will put the internet on a user’s eyes for the first time. Reaction to early sneak peeks is a mix of mockery and amazement, mostly depending on your propensity for tech lust. We don’t know much about them, other than some tantalizing video, but Google is making them, so it’s a safe bet that Chrome For Your Eyes will be in there. And that means some news organization in 2013 is going to ask: “How does this look jammed right into a user’s eyeballs?”

Others argue that 2013 (like 2012 and 2011) may (finally) be the year of the smart TV. The reason? Apple, by rumor or innuendo, is in the TV business. Without so much as a dubious leak to go on, fans are ready to take out a car loan to buy a TV. And it would be ludicrous to believe that a full-sized Apple TV (as opposed to the hockey-puck-sized appliance they sell now) won’t be connected to the Apple universe, which means iCloud, which means we can hope for Safari on the TV.

Google, on the other hand, has had a smart TV out since 2010, and the 15 of us who own them are interested to see the platform evolve further. I had Android’s Jelly Bean update on my TV before most people had it on their phones, but I still can’t do very much with it. My main beef with Google TV (and it’s as good of a reason as any for why it hasn’t caught on) is that you can use the internet, or you can watch TV. You cannot watch TV while using the internet, or vice versa. There’s a bright line between the two and you can’t cross it. I can tweet from my TV — trust me, it’s less exciting than you think — but I can’t tweet while I’m watching that TV or follow a feed of hashtags about the show I’m watching. So instead of using the 40 inches of HD I’ve got, I’m using my iPad or iPhone as a second screen (I know, first world problems). I want to know what happens when my first screen and second screen are the same screen. We might find out what that’s like in 2013. And, again, some news designer is going to have to wonder how this story is going to look on a 64-inch (or larger) screen hanging in the living room.

In 2012, if you were in the market for a refrigerator and had a cool $3,700 to burn, you could have bought one with a touch screen and a set of apps on board. I’m still mad at my wife for not letting me get one. Why wouldn’t I want to tweet from the fridge? Well, truth be told, tweeting from one in the store was…less than ideal. But stretch your imagination a bit. Take an iPad screen and embed it in your fridge door. Instead of the kid’s artwork hung by magnet, you now have a dynamically updating, touch-reactive screen. Now come to the fridge to grab a soda and get updated on the latest news while you’re at it. Is your content formatted for binge eating?

Reading tech news in 2012, it wasn’t hard to imagine all sorts of flat surfaces in your house becoming screens. Microsoft introduced the Surface, which pained me because what used to be called the Surface — a touch-screen table computer now called the PixelSense — seemed like a fantastic idea. Imagine, instead of passing sections of the paper to your spouse across the breakfast table, you passed browser windows. But with 82-inch touch screens on the market, it’s a matter of time before walls in our houses become giant internet-connected appliances. Or, in my dream home of the future, my bathroom mirror becomes a screen, showing me the weather, the traffic on my commute, my schedule, my inbox, and a feed of news while I brush my teeth in the morning. Nuts, you say? They went on sale in April for a pricey $7,800. Not in your price range? The New York Times R&D Lab hacked one together with an Xbox 360 Kinect and a flatscreen TV in 2011. Smart mirrors aren’t far off. So is your content formatted for shave-time reading?

And I haven’t even gotten around to asking if your content is formatted for your watch.

Now, do I expect all or even any of these to catch on and become the next smartphones? No. Some more than others, but not all. But inexorably, more things in our lives are going to become connected to the internet, capable of displaying news for us when we find ourselves with a moment. And many of those things are going to have bigger, better screens than our tiny smartphones do now. So if I can start a great, long-form story on my coffee table, send it to my bathroom mirror as I brush my teeth before going to bed, and finish it on my iPad before falling asleep, why wouldn’t I?

Is your content ready for that?

Matt Waite is a professor of practice at the University of Nebraska’s College of Journalism and Mass Communications, teaching reporting and digital product development. Previously, he was the principal developer of PolitiFact.