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Responsive Design for Apps — Part 2

By Jason Grigsby

Published on March 28th, 2013

Recently, I was tasked with helping a client determine if they could convert both their site and web apps to responsive design. In my Part 1 of this series, I outlined why it seems inevitable that the sorts of JavaScript UI frameworks that our client was using will eventually be responsive.

But it is one thing to say that you believe that JavaScript UI frameworks will eventually be responsive. It is another thing altogether to figure out what should be done with an existing app built to desktop UI conventions that would need to be made responsive.

Basically, it wouldn’t make sense for our client to bet their future on responsive design unless it could be demonstrated that the types of things they are building with these JavaScript UI frameworks could also be built in a responsive manner.

So I picked a web app that was representative of the way in which they’ve been using the Telerik widgets and decided to figure out how I would make it responsive.

The app that I chose is one that you might find on any large company’s intranet: a reimbursement form. Because this was an existing app, my goal was to find a way to keep the app as close to its original form as possible. If we were starting from scratch, we might find a different solution.

It’s also important to note that this isn’t the most complex application you’ll ever see. But it does represent the types of things they’re using the UI widgets for.

The existing app is designed around a couple of Telerik’s widgets: the TabStrip and Grid tools.

The app starts with a screen containing some instructions, tabs to switch to different areas of the expense report, and a total of the current report at the bottom.

Home screen of the reimbursement form app

Clicking on each individual tab takes you to a screen for that type of expense. The information collected for a mileage expense is different than the information that is collected for lodging. Each tab has a table showing the current list of expenses.

Mileage tab in the reimbursement form. Contains a table of current mileage expenses.

On this screen, you can begin to see the benefits that the developers are getting from the widgets. The grid widget is used to layout the table. It also makes the table sortable and selectable. Each row can be selected and then edited, copied or deleted. Behind the scenes, the grid widget is allowing the developers to retrieve JSON results and populate the table automatically.

If you select a row to edit or add a new expense, you get a modal with a web form. There is nothing terribly special about the form other than their use of some handy widgets for things like the date picker.

A web form used to edit a mileage expense entry.

There are other screens for the app, but this is the core of the interaction. And while it may seem simple up front, the backend systems that this app integrates with are terribly complex so building it was no small feat.

After finding that the majority of the JavaScript UI frameworks were not designed to support responsive design, I decided to try to figure out what they might do with something like the grid widget if it were built responsively.

I looked at the tabs and the tables and tried to figure out how to shrink them to fit on mobile.

And I got stuck. Gloriously stuck. Banging my head on the desk stuck.

After a couple of hours of struggle to envision the app as responsive, I decided to give up on making the desktop app responsive. I was beginning to think that the people who say that web apps can’t be responsive were right.

I figured if I can’t make it responsive, I better figure out what the mobile version of the app should look like because that will be the next step.

Now I’ve seen a lot of people argue against mobile first design. Most recently, Henry Blodget called mobile first a dumb strategy. He wrote:

As a result, the prevailing wisdom is that companies should become:

  • Mobile Only” (just forget big screens, keyboards, and mice–they’re dead)

Or, at least,

  • Mobile First” (design everything for smartphones first and big screens as an afterthought)

Frankly, the only people who have ever argued that mobile first means that other form factors are an afterthought are people building straw man arguments and ignoring what mobile first actually says.

Luke Wroblewski’s mobile first arguments can be summarized simply as mobile is a huge opportunity, mobile has some capabilities that aren’t practical on other platforms, and the constraints of mobile cause you to focus and build better designs.

Luke Wroblewski’s Mobile First Book

From my perspective, the opportunity on mobile should be obvious. Using the capabilities of mobile (like geolocation) are great enhancements. But the real power comes from designing the mobile interface first.

Every time I design the mobile interface first, I find that I learn things that make the wide screen version better. Embracing constraints, particularly in design, is tremendously powerful.

The most common complaint I’ve heard about mobile first design is that it sounds great if you don’t already have a desktop site or app, but not everyone has that luxury.

But even if you have an existing desktop design, mobile first thinking can be useful. That mindset is what helped me see how the reimbursement form could be retooled to be a responsive design.

After I got stuck, I decided to set aside the desktop app entirely and design the app for mobile. I wasn’t convinced that responsive design was going to work so I decided to assume that the mobile app would be a separate application. What would make a great experience for mobile?

To aid me, I used an iPad application called AppCooker to build mobile wireframes. I’ve become a big fan of this application because I can quickly build wireframes and simple prototypes of interactions. Plus, it is nice to get away from the keyboard and mouse and do actual work on an iPad.

While AppCooker works for me, it doesn’t matter what tool you use. A pencil and paper would work just as well. The point is to use the mobile design as a forcing function to make you think through what really matters.

So I started designing a mobile app version of the reimbursement form. As I thought about the form, I realized that the desktop app didn’t feel much like a form. I wanted to put make it clear that this was something you are filling out and submitting.

Mobile reimbursement form home screen

I realized that the little summary table at the bottom of the desktop app was the core of the form. You add a bunch of expenses in each category, it totals it for you, and then you hit submit.

Designing it this way meant that another tenet of mobile design was being used. The content itself was the interface. Instead of using tabs to navigate, each row in the form both served to summarize the amount for that category as well as a link to go edit the expenses in that category.

With the home screen done, I had to figure out what someone would see when they went to edit an expense category. On desktop, each row in the grid had multiple columns of information. There wasn’t enough room for that level of detail on the smaller screen.

Mileage expenses

I had to think through what really mattered for these expenses. While all of the data being collected is important, what information would make it possible for someone using the app to quickly identify which expense was which and also determine how much they were being compensated.

In this case, the title of the expense, date of expense, miles traveled, and cost seemed like the most important things.

Again, seeing the details, editing or deleting each expense became easy. Tap on the expense to get to the details of that expense and act on them.

Mileage expense form

Now, these wireframes aren’t perfect. Looking at them a few months later, I can see things that I would love to change. But they serve their purpose. They describe how the reimbursement form could be done on mobile in an efficient manner.

When I had finished with these wireframes, I woke my computer from sleep and decided to compare what I had done to the original application. I was surprised at how well the mobile app mapped to the original application.

The mobile home screen maps to the form’s total and the tabs across the top of the interface.

The widget at the bottom of the screen that tracked the expense total had become the home screen of the mobile app. The tabs had been replaced by each row in the form.

Mileage screen on mobile mapped to desktop

The mileage screen was almost a direct comparison except with less information in each row. Also, instead of the less intuitive select a row and then hit buttons. Selecting a row took you to the detail page.

Mobile mileage detail page mapped to the desktop screen

And of course the detail screen mapped almost directly to the expense modal on desktop. It also made it see the current values and edit them.

Once I saw how well mobile was mapping to desktop, I began to think that responsive design might be possible. Not only that, but I was beginning to believe the mobile interface was superior to the desktop one.

At this point, I decided to take a look at what the desktop version might look like if it was influenced by the mobile version. My goal was to keep the grid widget in the design and minimize changes to the desktop functionality as much as possible.

Widescreen mockup

I would be the first to admit that this interface feels off. It is because we’re mixing widgets that are part of the mobile UI framework with ones that are designed for the desktop framework. I think the app would feel more cohesive if we ditched the desktop widgets and focused on using the mobile widgets for all screen resolutions.

But for our purposes, the wireframe proved what we needed to see. It was possible for us to envision a design that could start with mobile screens and add functionality as the screen got larger. It was now possible for us to see how we might make apps responsive even if we weren’t exactly certain how we would handle converting the current application to a responsive design.

On the one hand, the exercise accomplished our goal. It was clear how responsive design could be applied to their applications. More importantly, we identified the process by which designers should think through how to convert existing apps.

For this particular app, the assessment was that it wouldn’t be worth making the current code base responsive. While we might be able to convert the Telerik-based app to be responsive, we know that Telerik’s framework has been declared end-of-life so it doesn’t make sense to invest time and money into a system that is deprecated.

Instead, the device detection will be used to route people on mobile devices to a mobile app. The mobile app will be built responsively. And when they are confident that the app works as expected, it will replace the desktop version.

In Part 3, I look at similar changes that are happening with native desktop apps and what we might learn from them.


Lenny said:

Awesome post man. I love seeing how others approach the design process, especially converting desktop into mobile. And I get a bit of solace knowing that even experienced designers get frustratingly stuck.

Would love the see more posts like this!

Question: Do you know any resources where a fledging designer such as myself can sharpen his skills?