Dao of the Mobile Web

Written by Jason Grigsby on

Many smart people have been revisiting John Allsopp’s April 2000 A List Apart article, Dao of Web Design, and finding inspiration in it.
Last week I was honored to give a keynote at Web Directions Unplugged. Because this was the first time meeting John Allsopp, it seemed like the right time to reread the Dao of Web Design.

I was struck by a couple of things in rereading the article. First, it is amazing how prescient the article is. It is as relevant today as it was eleven years ago.

Second, I realized that while most of the recent commentary on the article focused on the idea of adaptability and flexibility—particularly as they pertain to layout, that for me, the Dao of Web Design article poses a bigger question.

In the article, John writes:

What I sense is a real tension between the web as we know it, and the web as it would be. It’s the tension between an existing medium, the printed page, and its child, the web. And it’s time to really understand the relationship between the parent and the child, and to let the child go its own way in the world.

What I found myself wondering is if mobile, and in particular mobile web, isn’t a new child born of the desktop web that we need to learn to let go of in some way.

It is clear to me that mobile is a new and unique media. Tomi Ahonen makes a compelling argument that mobile is the seventh and largest mass media. He also documents eight unique abilities that set mobile apart.

If we agree that mobile is a new medium, then what John wrote back in 2000 is instructive:

When a new medium borrows from an existing one, some of what it borrows makes sense, but much of the borrowing is thoughtless, “ritual”, and often constrains the new medium. Over time, the new medium develops its own conventions, throwing off existing conventions that don’t make sense.

At dinner with John, we talked about this issue. Neither of us had answers, but he was already ahead of me in asking the questions: if mobile web is a child of the web, what do we need to give up and how are we limiting ourselves?


p class=”u-textShrink1″>P.S. I had a fantastic time at Web Directions Unplugged. Thanks to John, Maxine and Rosemary for putting together a wonderful event. Thanks to the attendees and speakers for the great conversations and presentations.

Jason Grigsby

Jason Grigsby is one of the co-founders of Cloud Four, Mobile Portland and Responsive Field Day. He is the author of Progressive Web Apps from A Book Apart. Follow him at @grigs.

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Great reference you made, I never read this article and it struck me with its modernity (although being written a geological era ago)

But I think the most relevant part to the current mobile web situation is the one about “adaptation” and “control”: if it’s damn tough to control how a page looks in a few browsers and OSs, it’s impossible to impose how it will be rendered on different *devices* with different screens, operating systems and browsers.

So here we have it, the Tao of the mobile web: care about what a page does, not how it looks like. And let it flow like water.

@Silvio I think I explained my point poorly. I had an email exchange as well that makes me believe I missed the mark.

Let me try it this way: I think adaptation and control are the lessons we should have learned with the desktop web. So if those are the lessons of the parent–even if they are lessons we didn’t learn successfully last time–shouldn’t mobile web have some new lessons?

@Jason As you say, the problem is that we did not learn those lessons – so to me they are “new” because if we could live with a desktop web that forced layout and look down users throat, we (at least, I) cannot live with a mobile web where the focus is on the “accident” and not on the “substance” (what a giant geographical leap but a small conceptual one from ancient China to Greece… 😉

A lesson is “learned” only when it’s applied fully, otherwise it’s just another slogan. Let’s hope to get it straight this time, it would be already a great achievement.

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